Interpublic: Home of the Whopper?

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Burger King Corp. is poised to name its choice for its kids' and promotion agencies this week, a move that could give Interpublic Group of Cos. a clean sweep of the business.

Executives close to the review said Draft Worldwide, Chicago, is tipped to win the promo account, and Interpublic sibling Campbell Mithun, Minneapolis, is the favorite for the kids' business. Should both win, it would mean a trifecta for Interpublic, with the bulk of the company's $400 million business housed at the holding company. McCann-Erickson Worldwide, New York, claimed the fast-feeder's general market and field marketing creative earlier this month. The burger chain wouldn't confirm the winners, but an announcement is expected this week. Finalists for the promo business include incumbent Alcone Marketing, Irvine, Calif.; Upshot, Chicago; and Interpublic's Zipatoni, St. Louis.

Ending the agency reviews will give Burger King some sorely needed closure on what has been a stormy chapter in the company's history. "Reaching a definitive selection of the agency is a major step in helping us to move forward," said Rob Calderin, VP-regional marketing for Burger King.

Whether changing agencies will be enough to help Burger King turn up the heat on its competition remains to be seen, but the company contends that things will be very different this time around. The review included more exhaustive consumer research of creative than in the past. Earlier work, including the "Got the urge?" campaign from Lowe Lintas, New York, tested well, but it was tested only in focus groups using storyboards or rough cuts, said a Burger King spokeswoman. So when the work went on air, the leap between concept and finished product left a disconnect. Spots tested for the just-finished shootout, however, were very close to the final campaign.

"[Consumers] were reacting to what they were going to see on air as opposed to a rough concept," said Mr. Calderin. "That's the key difference in our confidence level for [our decision]."

The research also covered a much wider audience, including polling mall customers in 20 markets. "We reviewed everything from the casting to the taglines to the typeface we used," added a spokeswoman. Burger King would not discuss details of the concept or creative, but the effort will go beyond advertising and will impact not only how the company positions the brand, but also product development and menu. McCann executives are not publicly discussing their creative work, either. But Nina DiSesa, chairman-chief creative officer, described the agency's challenge. "A lot of people prefer this hamburger, it's a good hamburger, but they don't necessarily buy it over other hamburgers," she said. "That was the conundrum. People like the Whopper, but why aren't they coming in to get it?"

Mr. Calderin said franchisees were "totally on board" with the strategy, but "at the end of the day, what really matters is impact on sales." Whether the effort is working likely won't be known for at least 60 days. If the numbers then aren't showing an improvement, Burger King will make some "midcourse adjustments." Ms. DiSesa said if the campaign can get a portion of the people who already love the Whopper, it would make a big difference in Burger King's sales. "We don't have to convince vegetarians to eat Whoppers." But Burger King does have to convince people to eat its reformulated french fries; a person close to the company said the marketer is reworking the fried potato formula.

Dan Fitzpatrick, chairman of the National Franchisee Association's marketing advisory committee, described the franchisee reaction to the agency choices as "very positive" but cautioned that commercials alone aren't what building a brand is all about. "We've got to execute in the restaurants," he said. "This is about delivering the brand personality to the consumer and reminding them that Burger King should be a relevant part of their consumption choices. It's the basics and we're getting there."

Contributing: Laura Q. Hughes

Copyright January 2001, Crain Communications Inc.

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