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(July 16, 2001) ROME -- Burger King has launched its first advertising initiative ever in Italy, with a new Web site and local strategy that the company hopes will help it gain market share against entrenched rival McDonald's Corp.

U.S.-style fast-food restaurants have been controversial in Italy, where many groups see them as a threat to traditional Italian cuisine and culture. In its nearly decade-long presence in Italy, McDonald's has been a victim of dozens of protests that have often led to damaged property and violence.

Burger King has operated in Italy for years, but has managed to sidestep those problems by staying behind the scenes. The company owns part of Italian pizza chain Spizzico and it also has a major stake in Autogrille, a chain that operates cafeteria-style restaurants at Italian highways, airports and train stations.

But that strategy has created little name recognition for the company, something that Azzurra IMP New Media, an Italy-only agency that focuses on Web strategies, said will change now that the company has started operating restaurants under its own name.

"Italians who have traveled internationally or who have family abroad may be familiar with the company, but for most people in Italy the brand is practically starting from square one," the agency says.

The first step was Azzurra IMP's development of a company Web page, www.burgerking.it, which launched with only limited information July 10. The page is expected to be fully operational by August.

Later, the company said, it will start localized advertising campaigns, focusing on markets where it has a presence under the Burger King name.

So far, those markets are few and far between. The company has only a razor-thin name brand operation in Italy: just 25 locations in 17 Italian cities, compared to some 310 Italian locations spread across 60 cities for McDonald's. But the push for market share is a new one, with all of its Italian restaurants opening in the last 12 months.

It is not clear if Interpublic Group of Cos.' Lowe Lintas & Partners Worldwide, which works on the Burger King account in 15 countries, will become involved in the Italian efforts for the company. Lowe Lintas declined comment on the subject, and Burger king said its Italian advertising strategy was still being developed. -- Eric J. Lyman

Copyright July 2001, Crain Communications Inc.

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