Feuding at BK

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Burger king franchisees, harking back to BBDO Worldwide's "Have it your way," would like it their way, and that is splitsville -- as soon as possible -- from BK owner Diageo. Diageo wants out, too, but on its timetable. New owners won't cure BK's basic problems. More consistent brand management and positioning is the remedy. Without it, BK operators are in for more frustration.

Successive BK managements have made the chain a case study of marketing missteps and fumbles. It's hard to have steady direction in a company now on its 17th CEO in its 46-year history. When you're trying to make headway against one of the world's most successful marketing machines -- McDonald's Corp. -- this is not a recipe for success.

But Burger King has its traditional core strength to build on, if its managers can only capitalize on it. BK's flame-broiling, made-to-order cooking system still gets high marks in taste and quality comparisons with its rivals -- and not only BK realizes that. McDonald's just pushed through a multimillion dollar overhaul of its restaurant cooking system to make made-to-order fare the standard at its stores.

While BK franchisees complain Diageo treats the chain as a "cash cow" for its other businesses, the BK system nevertheless has embarked on a revamp plan that calls for new logos, store designs, signage and drive-though systems. That's a necessary step. The next is that Burger King and its franchisees need to find an appealing new way to tell its food story, to build in some new product and promotions excitement and, most importantly, to commit themselves, for the long-haul, to a consistent and continuing marketing strategy and message.

Franchisees can't do this by committee. They need sharp thinking and execution from headquarters, and then attention to details and follow-through at the store level. Let's hope the uncertainty about BK's future ownership, and the bitterness felt by its franchisees, does not divert attention from what needs to be done.

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