Burger King CMO: Hand Your Brand to the Customer

Russ Klein Makes Convincing Case for Giving Consumers the Keys to the Kingdom

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ORLANDO, Fla. ( -- Burger King's Russ Klein joined the chorus of marketing execs at the Association of National Advertisers' annual conference counseling companies to let consumers have brands their way.

"Turning your brand over to consumers is taking control," the president of global marketing, strategy and innovation for Burger King told the attendees who packed the grand ballroom at the Ritz-Carlton Orlando. "They'll return it to you in better shape."

Making a point
By the time he took the stage, a video montage had already merchandized his point with clips from late-night talk shows and news coverage about the chain's big burgers, plastic-headed monarch and winking advertising.

Mr. Klein's explanation of the benefits of handing the reins to consumers was perhaps the most convincing of the day's presentations.

With quotes from Voltaire and Freud to reinforce his points, Mr. Klein walked the audience through the often controversial gamble the No. 2 burger chain took to turn around its once flagging brand. "We placed big bets on our core customer," he said, describing the 18% of the chain's core customers who account for more than 50% of sales.

'Consumption has become content'
In addition to developing more relevant products, the chain invested heavily in making its brand the "currency exchange" for social media. "The iPod consumer is in charge of media, and content is at their fingertips," Mr. Klein said. "Media consumption has become content in its own right. It symbolizes the democratization of advertising. We're in full gallop to catch up to consumers." He positioned the brand as a mischievous "cool uncle" based on the brand DNA of "all that is good about adolescence."

Its core customers are younger and more likely to be male, so Burger King took the stand that it had to be more provocative than pleasant to capture their attention; they were more likely to be persuaded by a friend than by traditional advertising, especially outside the U.S.

The chain had to be willing to face some negative reactions, Mr. Klein said, but "we don't have to go into damage control and spin when somebody takes a swipe at us. You have to be accepting of the fact that they'll say good things about you and bad things about you. Get over it. We have to find ways to put customers in charge of social currency."

'Battlefield environment'
Not that any of this was easy. Convincing franchisees to play along created a near "battlefield environment" for the first 18 months, but improving sales "lubricated" their buy-in. "Stakeholder management is very stressful for us," he conceded.

Mr. Klein came well prepared with a host of facts and figures to support his case. Among them: The chain launched more than a dozen new products, which he said drew $1.5 billion in sales. Burger King's controversial advertising has put it in the top 10 among all brands in recall and likability for 39 of the last 48 weeks and given it more than double the buzz of McDonald's, according to

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