Campaign of the Year: Subservient Chicken

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In the years prior to February 2004, people inside the advertising industry thought of Burger King as a difficult client, while people outside the industry thought of Burger King infrequently, and usually after McDonalds, Wendy's and the corner diner.

That all began to change after Crispin Porter + Bogusky launched its inaugural "Have it Your Way" work for the troubled brand shortly after raising eyebrows with the account win early in the year. Then it all changed some more when BK introduced its Tendercrisp chicken product. The now famous "Subservient Chicken" campaign launched that new sandwich and a pop culture phenomenon and furthered CP+B's efforts to establish an affection connection between formerly bland BK and glassy-eyed, well-fed consumers.

The campaign's exceptional commercials component was only so much spicy condiment on top of the fried flesh that was the SC website-a site that was forwarded to a small group of people on April 8 and that garnered 100,000,000 hits two weeks after its launch, with visitors spending an average of seven minutes and 35 seconds with the people-pleasing pullet.

From every angle one looks at this campaign, there is something to respect. There is the brilliance and brilliant dirtiness of the spots, executed with shocking finesse by Rocky Morton. There are the site traffic numbers, the media coverage, the cultural cachet, the plain fact that Burger King co-opted web porn in order to connect with its desired audience in the first place. And that may be the most striking thing about this whole exercise-a (Red state-based) marketer abandoning the usual pap-inducing fear of not pleasing everyone in favor of a direct, authentic piece of entertainment that would resonate specifically with those young (male-skewing) fast food consumers on the marketer's hit list. It's a seemingly simple thing that many advertisers seem to consistently have difficulty doing.

BK's chief marketing officer Russ Klein, present at the birth of the campaign, says that the mandate from the start of the BK/CP+B union was to better define and then engage the food chain's target audience. "The brand required a rekindling of attachment to our core customer," says Klein. "It was less an issue of brand awareness. We are obviously a big brand and a recognizable global icon, but we felt that it was a brand that required some restoration of intensity between what we were doing with our product, our advertising, our promotion and our core customer." One of the first steps, says Klein, was adjusting the customer target into a more sharply defined, 16-34 year old, male-skewing group. And CP+B was just the agency to deliver that group. "What struck me was their holistic view," says Klein of his agency partner. "They solve brand problems from the ground up. They don't necessarily gravitate to 30-second TV commercials as a tonic for every marketing problem. They are not only a big believer but also a practitioner of word of mouth marketing-they understand what it takes to generate strong advocacy among the core customer."

CP+B's Alex Bogusky says that since Klein brought the agency on board, the shop and the work have profited from proximity to top decision-makers - and from Klein's own acumen. "From the very first day we worked very closely with the CEO and Russ. That's all you can ask for as an agency," says Bogusky. "The ability to work with the decision makers. To be able to pick up the phone and turn things around that may be going wrong and to work fast because you know you have a real decision. (And) I'm sure people will be skeptical when I say that Russ is about as smart a marketer as I've seen because he is, after all, my client, but I think the proof is in the work."

Klein speaks in a matter of fact marketer voice and talks about "Subservient Chicken" as if he were recounting a strategy to use recycled paper in take-out bags. "When I talk about this, I try and point out to people who are struck by the novelty of 'Subservient Chicken' that it was a very purposeful campaign," says Klein. "It was about having chicken your way and what better way to show that than bossing around a chicken. It was not a gratuitous venture in creativity." As far as the, um, striking nature and connotations of the work, Klein reasserts that the campaign was not designed for everyone. "We are a big marketer but we are not a mass marketer," says Klein. "In that sense we feel we have sharply targeted initiatives across various products. Confined to this particular channel, we felt we were within the realm of what was appropriate for our audience. If you are going to be targeted you have to deliver something that is relevant to that target."

Klein does admit he perhaps takes a less formulaic approach than some of his marketing brethren in terms of viewing ads as more than product fact-conveying vehicles and endorsing a more ephemeral brand of communication. "While we are all about our great food there is a much bigger social transaction that takes place with our brand that requires we are pop culture relevant and have social currency in what we do," he says. "We have to shed our skin every so often to stay current. I have a more liberal view than maybe classic brand strategists would have around the need for perishable execution and ideas that reflect the mood of the market." The results of the campaign doubtless help put that unapologetic lilt in Klein's voice - the product he says has represented a half a billion dollar-plus business to BK. "It will be a platform that will mean innovation and news on our calendar and it is part of what is a nine going on ten months of same store sales growth," says Klein.

So "Subservient Chicken" is an easy campaign of the year. But, will it make Burger King finally settle down and find love in a long-term relationship?

"We are delighted with the partnership," says Klein. "I have nothing but high hopes that it will be a long and mutually satisfying relationship."

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