Burger King president loses taste for new ads

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Just seven weeks after Burger King Corp. launched a new, high-profile ad campaign, the company is already in search of ways to change it.

"We need to get our advertising right," said Paul Clayton, president of Burger King North America. "I think we have some work to do."

Mr. Clayton said the nation's No. 2 burger chain is actively evaluating how to improve its TV commercials, and may change its new tagline, "When you have it your way, it just tastes better."


Already, at least two brand-building spots have been pulled, said one franchisee. For now, the chain is relying solely on event-driven ads such as the current college football promotion.

One retired spot showed two guys staring each other down over a Whopper; another showed a Whoppermobile drawing crowds in a suburban neighborhood as drivers of other treat-vending trucks with no customers menacingly looked on.

A new approach may be evident as early as next week when Burger King stages a national launch of the Chicken Club, its first big product introduction in more than a year.

In an interview with Advertising Age, Mr. Clayton, 41, said he wants Burger King and its agency of five years, Ammirati Puris Lintas, New York, to create commercials that are "relevant and likable." He'd like to see work that breaks through "the enormous clutter that exists and deliver against our sales and brand-building objectives."


Long dependent on network TV, Burger King also plans to bolster local advertising, particularly on the West Coast. That's where fast-food competition is most brutal, with regional chains like Foodmaker's Jack in the Box and CKE Restaurants' Carl's Jr. fighting for market share along with the national players. Ammirati will be the agency for that project, he said.

"We don't do it as well as we need to," Mr. Clayton said of local ad efforts. "We need to understand the consumer perception of our brand that is unique to the West Coast to determine what we need to do to properly position Burger King."

Mr. Clayton's concerns come as Burger King, a strong performer for several years, lags behind competitors. U.S. same-store sales fell 5% for the six months ended June 30, vs. a year ago, for the $10.9 billion company. At the same time, archrival McDonald's Corp., which has beefed up its own local advertising, had same-store sales increases of 4% to 5%, according to Wall Street estimates.

Burger King has about 7,800 U.S. outlets, while McDonald's has more than 12,500.


Mr. Clayton, a 15-year Burger King veteran and its former top marketing executive, is serving as interim marketing chief while the company searches for a replacement for James Watkins.

Mr. Watkins resigned one week after the new campaign hit network TV last month. He left to join Beringer Wine Estates as chief operating officer, saying the timing was coincidental. Mr. Watkins was in his Burger King post for two years.

The new ads sought to use humorous situations to show how the chain stands apart for its flame-broiled cooking and "made your way" sandwiches. The theme line, "When you have it your way, it just tastes better," is more a tweaking than a brand new approach. It adds onto the former "It just tastes better," which ran since 1996.

The work replaced the "food and music" campaign credited with helping spark a sales turnaround. Launched in 1994, that advertising paired images of food with popular music and was imitated by other marketers. It began to lose steam last year, Burger King officials said.

Burger King has the second-largest media war chest in the $110 billion fast-food business, behind McDonald's. The chain spent $404.6 million on measured media last year, according to Competitive Media Reporting, while McDonald's spent $569.2 million.


Mr. Clayton, a respected restaurant executive, attributed soft sales to lack of big product news, and to the failure of recent ads to emotionally connect with consumers.

"We are all fairly effective at promotional or event advertising," he said. "We need to find a way to weave common elements so we are firmly developing the brand in a consistent way. That has always been the challenge in this industry."

McDonald's is winning now thanks in part to its new decentralized management structure, new U.S. executives and increased local marketing, said Lehman Bros. analyst Mitchell Speiser.

"They have just been doing a better job on new products and advertising," he said, "and culturally this new management regime has instilled a more entrepreneurial culture at the local level."

Copyright September 1999, Crain Communications Inc.

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