By 2004 Burger King’s position as the second-largest hamburger company in the world was waning. With a worsening brand image and an unshakable image for poor food quality, the chain was forced to shut down hundreds of stores. Following a flurry of CEO and ad agency turnovers, Burger King awarded Miami-based ad agency Crispin Porter + Bogusky a $350 million advertising budget to reshape its image. ‘‘We weren’t a brand that suffered from lack of awareness,’’ Russ Klein, Burger King’s chief marketing officer, told Advertising Age, ‘‘but we were a brand that suffered from a lack of emotional attachment.’’ Crispin Porter + Bogusky resurrected Burger King’s 1974 tagline ‘‘Have it your way’’ for ‘‘Subservient Chicken,’’ one of its first campaigns for the firm. The campaign was launched on April 8, 2004, immediately following Burger King’s introduction of the Tendercrisp Chicken Sandwich.
The campaign began with E-mail messages that directed recipients to SubservientChicken.com. A week later three 30-second spots were aired on network television, followed by a print ad that also directed people to the website. The website, which served as the core of the campaign, featured a person wearing a chicken costume who acted out whatever command was typed into the command bar. More than 400 commands had been filmed by Crispin Porter + Bogusky beforehand to correspond to possible commands. The website had the feel of a webcam, suggesting that the chicken was standing inside an apartment just waiting to act out the visitor’s next prompt.
Considered a bold approach when it first appeared, the ‘‘Subservient Chicken’’ campaign collected a number of creative awards, including Best in Show at the One Show Interactive, the Grand Clio, and the Yahoo Big Idea Chair Award. Within the first 24 hours the website had received more than a million hits, with this number soaring to an impressive 385 million hits by April 2005. Visitors spent an average of six minutes interacting with the site. Not only did the ‘‘Subservient Chicken’’ campaign see Burger King’s 21-month sales decline stop, but sales actually improved so much that in 2004 Burger King’s growth surpassed its principal competitor, McDonald’s Corporation.
Founded in 1954, Burger King had grown to include more than 11,000 fast-food restaurants, most privately owned franchises, by 2005. Early on, Burger King allowed franchisees to buy stores, which stimulated rapid expansion. Quality and consistency varied between stores, however, a flaw that had haunted Burger King for decades. From the beginning Burger King also used the ‘‘Have it your way’’ tagline to emphasize its restaurants’ ability to prepare food to accommodate customers’ tastes, a stab at the fixed menu of McDonald’s. With the emergence in the late 1990s of restaurant chains touting healthier food, such as Starbucks Corporation and Jamba Juice Company, competition grew even fiercer among fast-food giants like Burger King, McDonald’s, Wendy’s, and Jack in the Box. To adjust to the emphasis on healthier eating, Burger King introduced low-carbohydrate options, including more salads. Brad Blum, CEO of Burger King in 2002, increased sales by adorning the menu with the Angus Steak Burger and Fire-Grilled Salads.
Burger King continued to fire agencies that created commercials with close-up shots of food, also known in the industry as ‘‘playing up the grill,’’ a common technique used in McDonald’s advertisements. Young & Rubicam, the agency that preceded Crispin Porter + Bogusky, had introduced Burger King’s ‘‘Fire’s Ready’’ campaign, but the agency was sacked after only 10 months. ‘‘There’s a young guy product that basically all of the greatest advertising in the world is built around—that’s beer. Here we have the exact same audience [as beer marketers]. Yet, in general, you have some of the worst advertising in the world,’’ Alex Bogusky, a partner at Crispin Porter + Bogusky, told Brandweek. ‘‘Since they both have the same target there’s no reason the fast food category has to be so lame. It’s just gotten that way.’’ Until Wendy’s released its own chicken sandwiches, Burger King’s Original Chicken Sandwich had been the market leader in this food item. In response to Wendy’s move, Burger King began using higher grade meat and other ingredients to create its new Tendercrisp Chicken Sandwich. A month after the sandwich was introduced, in March 2004, Crispin Porter + Bogusky launched the ‘‘Subservient Chicken’’ campaign. It was a time when Burger King was floundering. ‘‘It’s not like you know you’re getting the chance to work on a resurgent brand. You get a chance to work on a damaged brand. When we started on this, business was not too good [for Burger King],’’ Bogusky told Brandweek. ‘‘They were ready to take some risks.’’
The ‘‘Subservient Chicken’’ campaign targeted 16- to 35-year-old males who were engaged with ‘‘online nontraditional’’ advertising. Crispin Porter + Bogusky hoped that the campaign would deviate from Burger King’s traditional strategy, which was simply to mimic McDonald’s advertising. Copying the strategy of the market leader, according to Crispin Porter + Bogusky, made Burger King seem to be just a smaller version, which was not something the public wanted. Crispin Porter + Bogusky attempted to make Burger King ‘‘popular’’ with its target market, believing that the popularity of the brand would then spread into other demographics. Jeff Hicks, Crispin Porter + Bogusky’s president, told Brandweek, ‘‘We talk a lot about the ‘cool uncle.’ The voice of the brand is that cool uncle who may be closer to your age than your father’s. He’s the kind of guy who might say, ‘Hey, take a year off from college and go travel.’ He’s got a little more of an adolescent voice than your parents but he’s also got a little bit of experience. That’s the voice we like for the brand.’’
Known for creating interactive, viral campaigns, that is, advertising spread by word of mouth, Crispin Porter + Bogusky began by steering away from traditional media. ‘‘What struck me was their holistic view,’’ Klein told Advertising Age’s Creativity. ‘‘They solve brand problems from the ground up. They don’t necessarily gravitate to thirty-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.’’ Neither Burger King nor Crispin Porter + Bogusky wanted a mass-market campaign, choosing instead to use a specific channel for reaching 16- to 35-year-old male Internet users. ‘‘If you are going to be targeted,’’ Klein continued, ‘‘you have to deliver something that is relevant to that target.’’
McDonald’s, the giant of fast-food firms, was founded in 1948 and by 1962 had served its billionth hamburger. ‘‘Billions served’’ became the company’s tagline, and by 2002 McDonald’s was spending more than $600 million per year on advertising. By 2002 the company operated more than 30,000 stores, almost triple the number of Burger King’s. Each McDonald’s restaurant obtained food from an authorized supplier, ensuring that a Big Mac tasted the same in Miami, Florida, for example, as it did in Anchorage, Alaska. McDonald’s advertising campaigns traditionally included cross-promotions that involved toys and movies, with Walt Disney Studio Entertainment being one of its longest-running partners. The McDonald’s Teenie Beanie Babies giveaway of 1997, for example, proved to be one of the company’s biggest successes. By 2005, however, McDonald’s was aggressively fighting to retain its breakfast market. Between 1995 and 2005, 36 percent of its breakfast customers had left for retailers like Starbucks, which served higher-priced Arabica coffees. Research showed that coffee, unlike breakfast sandwiches, brought consumers back to the same store every day, and so McDonald’s responded by introducing a richer Robusta blend titled ‘‘Premium.’’ An aggressive ad campaign followed, with one television spot showing a woman sipping McDonald’s Premium coffee and enjoying a McGriddle sandwich while fantasizing, ‘‘I fired my boss’’ and ‘‘I married a rock star.’’
With more than 6,000 stores by 2002, Wendy’s had gained the position of the third-largest fast-food chain in the world. Wendy’s, which had a substantial menu that included alternatives to hamburgers, presented itself as a higher-quality alternative to McDonald’s and Burger King. Dave Thomas, who had founded the company in 1969, often served as its spokesperson, and over the years he appeared in more than 800 commercials. The corporation’s best-known ad campaign—‘‘Where’s the Beef?’’ with actress Clara Peller—appeared in 1984, and Wendy’s market share immediately jumped 12 percent. When Thomas died in 2002 Wendy’s turned to more conventional advertising, however. By 2005 the corporation was suffering losses from the rising price of beef, the emergence of healthier fast-food alternatives, and a hoax by a woman who claimed that she had found a severed finger in her Wendy’s chili.
To add a healthier chicken sandwich to its menu Burger King introduced the high-quality Tendercrisp Chicken Sandwich on March 19, 2004. It was while planning another spot for Burger King that Jeff Benjamin, Crispin Porter + Bogusky’s interactive creative director, came up with the idea of the ‘‘Subservient Chicken’’ campaign. He instructed his crew to film an actor wearing a chicken costume that had been designed by the Stan Winston Studio. The actor was instructed to perform more than 400 short actions. The filming took place inside the apartment of a friend of Benjamin’s that was furnished with only a modest lamp and two couches. ‘‘Our approach has always been, ‘Follow the work,’ ’’ Crispin Porter + Bogusky’s Jeff Steinhour told Fast Company. ‘‘Meaning if ever you’re in doubt about a decision, simply ask whether it’s going to make the work better.’’
Benjamin activated the campaign website,
SubservientChicken.com, on April 9, 2004. Once a visitor had entered the website, the text ‘‘Contacting the chicken’’ appeared on a black background and with the Burger King logo. Below, in a command bar, visitors were prompted, ‘‘Get chicken just the way you like it. Type in your command here.’’ The chicken waited patiently, supposedly before a webcam, for the commands. Included in the chicken’s repertoire were commands like ‘‘Dance,’’ ‘‘Cluck,’’ ‘‘Play baseball,’’ and ‘‘Get into the Lotus position.’’ If the chicken was asked to perform something inappropriate, impossible, or not on the list, it simply approached the camera and wagged its finger in admonishment. The overall effect was that the chicken seemed to be executing commands live. As the project neared completion, on April 8, Benjamin E-mailed 20 people the website’s URL. Without any serious promotion the website had registered more than one million hits by the end of the day. The following week three 30-second spots were aired on late-night network television. The spots featured scenes from the website, for example, the chicken acting out commands before young adults. In another spot a man commanded the chicken to try on different clothing. Only one print ad was released for the campaign. This ad, which featured a cutout of a chicken mask, appeared in an October issue of ESPN’s magazine. ‘‘I would describe what we’re doing as making BK unique,’’ Bogusky told Brandweek. ‘‘Sometimes that makes people uncomfortable. Viewers may look at the advertising and say, ‘You can’t talk that way’ or ‘That’s kind of weird.’ It’s only weird because there’s only been one voice [in the category] with any consistency and that’s been McDonald’s. So we’re all conditioned to say, that’s how fast food advertising should look, be and sound.’’
CHICKEN GARTER BELT
The bizarre chicken outfit, spoofing other more salacious websites, came complete with a garter belt. The costume was designed by Stan Winston, the same designer involved in movies like Aliens, Terminator, and Jurassic Park.
Despite the low cost of the ‘‘Subservient Chicken’’ campaign, it garnered some of the advertising industry’s foremost honors, including a Grand Clio, Best in Show at the One Show Interactive, and the Yahoo Big Idea Chair Award. After being online for only one month, the chicken had performed its millionth request. After one year the site had had approximately 14 million visitors and 396 million hits. Andy Bonaparte, a Burger King ad director, told Adweek that the campaign helped ‘‘sell a lot, a lot, a lot of chicken sandwiches.’’ During the campaign Burger King’s 21-month sales decline stopped and turned around. Burger King’s sales growth was soon outperforming McDonald’s. Sales of the Tendercrisp sandwich consistently increased at an average of 9 percent a week until it eventually sold more than the firm’s other chicken offering, the Original Chicken Sandwich. Matt Vescovo, one of the judges responsible for honoring the ‘‘Subservient Chicken’’ campaign with a gold during the Viral Awards show, was effusive in his praise of the campaign. He told Adweek, ‘‘To take that idea [that you can have chicken any way you like it] for something that really isn’t that exciting—a chicken sandwich—and to so seamlessly put it into such an innovative use of technology, it just really hit so many sweet spots for me.’’