Burger King beefs up for next year's spinoff

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With less than nine months left in their 18-month quest to turn around Burger King Corp., CEO John Dasburg and Global Chief Marketing Officer Chris Clouser have hit the road to gain franchisee support for their marketing plans.

During November and December, the duo has been campaigning in at least 10 markets with an elaborate roadshow that outlines the 2002 marketing calendar-along with operational goals that will put the brand back in fighting condition for its separation from parent Diageo. When Mr. Dasburg joined the burger chain, he set a goal to make the separation from Diageo happen by the second quarter of 2002. Faltering sales forced the chain to admit in August that the spinoff might be delayed by six months, but Mr. Dasburg and Mr. Clouser have continued to use the 18-month goal in marketing and franchisee meetings.

At the current meetings, there were lots of new product samples, flashy presentations and even a basketball-handling demonstration and autograph signing by a visiting Harlem Globetrotter. But the full-court press was highly conceptual with little advertising shown. "It was more about culture-building," said an agency executive knowledgeable about the meeting.

At the center of the plan unveiled to franchisees is the 45th anniversary of the Whopper, which basketball star Shaquille O'Neal will help sell in 2002 advertising. The focus of the heavy push will be the heritage of the Whopper and the claim that its taste is "most preferred." The No. 2 burger chain told franchisees it will introduce a slew of new products for a wide range of dayparts, including breakfast and late night. The broader menu will allow Burger King to answer the "veto vote"-consumers who normally steer away from quick service chains-by offering non-meat items and salads. Another goal is to catch up with the menu variety competing chains like Wendy's International and McDonald's Corp. have touted.

Already, Burger King has unveiled five new products either in test or limited distribution, including old-fashioned ice cream shakes, onion rings with a dipping sauce and a sourdough burger.

At the meeting, Mr. Clouser told franchisees the chain is pursuing endorsement deals with several other celebrities, including Latin singer Marc Anthony, "Sex and the City" star Sarah Jessica Parker and basketball player Vince Carter. Mr. Clouser's presentation, according to franchisees who attended a recent meeting, showed video concepts for how Ms. Parker would hawk a whole-breast Chicken Whopper and Mr. Carter would show off his dunking skills on a new line of french-fry dipping sauces. Later in the year, the chain plans to roll out a Burger Lover's menu, currently being tested across the Midwest.

To enable its quality goal of hotter, fresher sandwiches, Burger King is rolling out two new grilling systems that promise to heat sandwiches 9 degrees hotter and accommodate multiple sizes. Restaurants will also add high-speed toasters and food holding units that limit the time food can be kept.

Burger King's big movie tie-in for 2002 will be Columbia TriStar Motion Pictures Group's "Men in Black 2," even as the chain is negotiating a non-exclusive, multiyear alliance with Vivendi Universal's Universal Pictures. The chain already has cross-promotional pacts with AOL Time Warner and eBay.

"We discussed a plethora of plans and we can't comment about confidential information," said a spokeswoman, who confirmed the meetings but declined further comment. "We are strengthening our brand and we have a new management team in place and they are doing every thing they can to invigorate [the brand]."

Despite the fact that the road show offered less detail than common in past franchisee meetings, many franchisees left as believers that Burger King will soon be the darling of the fast-food world. "We are really convinced a lot of good things are happening," said Mahendra Nath, president-CEO of Nath Cos., one of the largest franchisees with 103 units. While he wouldn't confirm details about the meeting's content, he said Messrs. Clouser and Dasburg built successful track records turning around Northwest Airlines. "Those are the things that are very convincing," added Mr. Nath.

It was not made clear which agencies would handle what efforts. Since parting with Interpublic Group of Cos.' McCann-Erickson Worldwide, New York, the burger chain is working with several agencies, among them Interpublic's Campbell Mithun, Minneapolis, Bcom3 Group's Kaplan Thaler Group and D'Arcy Masius Benton & Bowles and independent McCaffrey Ratner Gottlieb & Lane, New York.

The Burger King plan comes as the chain reported flat sales from July through September. Although No. 1 McDonald's posted similar results, it's crucial that Burger King turn things around to get the best price for its spinoff.

"[The franchisees] trust that these guys will make something happen," said one agency executive close to Burger King. In recent months, several high-profile franchisees have struggled financially, including top franchisee AmeriKing. "They're looking for a savior now."

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