Losing control leaves BK exposed

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Burger King is embracing the consumer-controlled marketing model by letting consumers have their way with its brand online. And they have, in astounding numbers-and in a way that courts more controversy for the company.

More than 4.1 million visitors to Heavy.com have streamed a consumer-created video depicting a woman, wearing little more than a shirt, touching herself suggestively and holding up handwritten signs of seduction. As she removes her bra, she is suddenly revealed to be a he wearing the mask of BK's king icon. Says the bare-chested, mask-clad man: "You've been served by the King. You perv, you perv!"

The faux striptease was created by a user of the site as part of a BK promotion, and illustrates the conundrum faced by marketers relinquishing control of their brand to consumers. While the tack can be wildly popular-the film is "a sensational hit," according to Heavy.com Co-CEO Simon Assaad and one of the site's most viral clips ever-such a move leaves the marketer vulnerable to whatever interpretation those consumers give to its brand. Not to mention risking backlash from stakeholders.

Does Burger King "expect this to get enough buzz that it somehow relates back to the brand?" asked one of the fast-feeder's franchisees, who called the effort "inappropriate" and "going too far." He added, "How can this be good?"

Upside potential

Indeed, such a move would render apoplectic executives at Walt Disney, where you have to sign a 10-page document to use the Mickey Mouse ears, said Peter S. Fader, professor of marketing at University of Pennsylvania's Wharton School. But he praised Burger King for pushing the marketing envelope and serving as a social experiment. "It's risky, but it does have much higher upside potential than by taking a safer route," he said, "as long as they're willing to accept the possible downside."

Burger King indicates it is. "We are perfectly comfortable with being part of the social fabric, including the range and lack of control that it engenders," said spokeswoman Edna Johnson, who noted that the marketer did not have content approval or input into the Heavy.com film. "We're very comfortable for our brand to be in that place. The site does appeal to a niche market that is one of our core demographics."

VML, a unit of WPP Group and interactive agency of record for BK, had bought media on Heavy.com as part of a promotion offering free video downloads for iPods backed by BK. It gave Heavy.com some King masks because "they are our media partner," said Nick Centofante, VML media director, which Heavy.com handed out to some users with the idea they be used to generate content for the site.

The notion was to "try something where we see what the users want to do with the brand," Mr. Assaad said. "VML allowed us to provide [the mask] to people without any constraints. When users create content with their cultural icons, it's not always in line with the strategy of the advertiser, but it's really important because sometimes the consumers are more in touch with how to propagate a brand than the marketer is."

"The kind of site Heavy is, you don't really have control over what people are going to do," said Jessica Brown, media manager at VML. "That's the interesting thing about consumer-generated content."

Heavy receives 6 million unique users a month and has a viral reach of 65 million. Content aims at males ages 18 to 34, the sweet spot of Burger King's marketing target.

Pete Blackshaw, chief marketing officer for Intelliseek and co-founder of the Word of Mouth Marketing Association, sees the video as being consistent with the spirit of the Heavy.com site, but it "does raise questions about how far you want to go against your core equity," he said. "In your effort to seduce those hormone-laced adolescent voyeurs do you tip the brand beyond its core identity? That depends on how desperate you are for the elusive young men."

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