Simply put, Ronald McDonald is an American icon. He was created in 1963 and first portrayed by none other than (hang on to your McGriddle) the future Hailer of Centenarians himself, Willard Scott. Ronald is a cheerful brand mascot known by 96% of all school kids in America, according to stunning-stuff.com. He is second only to Santa Claus. But other than the bizarre McFactoid of the link to the unbearably cheerful Mr. Scott, Ronald just isn’t that interesting to today’s adults.
The Burger King, first known as the Magical Burger King, started out as a direct competitor to Ronald. He too had an imaginary group of colorful, food-related friends. After years of therapy, I can now admit that I used to wear those paper crowns they still hand out to little kids. But somewhere along the way, the Burger King has changed. Jackie Paper came no more. The King’s a grownup now.
The new Burger King sports a gigantic fiberglass head with a frozen, vacant grin and eyes that hint at a possible psychological disorder. He appears in unlikely places, leering and silent, about as far from Ronald McDonald as Marilyn Manson is from Carrie Underwood. He’s meatnormously weird. But let’s face it, when was the last time you found yourself wondering what the deal was with Ronald McDonald? The King may be unnerving, but he gets noticed. As a front man for BK, the Creepy King has yet to utter a single word, but as a concept he speaks volumes, he evokes a reaction, and he has had success with the fast food giant’s core target-young males, who are, shall we say, the heaviest consumers of fast food.
A Perennial #2, no matter how hard they try
Let’s take a step back for a second. Burger King has been running behind McDonalds for an awfully long time. (Like, forever.) As the first major fast food brand to promote customized orders, immortalized by the Have it Your Way® campaign, their concept was sound: offer a more personalized, higher quality fast food experience. The problem for decades has been less about the brand concept and more about the brand experience. When the rubber meets the road and the burger hits the bun, Burger King all too frequently doesn’t deliver a steady, consistent quality experience the way the Golden Arches or Wendy’s does. Even the best brand strategy will be flame-broiled by bad execution.
Burger King has been improving their service, so they say, but they are still struggling to gain ground on Micky D’s. About four years ago they hired Crispin Porter+Bogusky, one of the most creative ad agencies in the business, and one with an entirely different way of looking at branding and advertising. Their work includes the wildly successful introduction of the Mini Cooper, which put their agency on the national radar, and more recently a trunkload of campaigns for Volkswagen, including the simulated “real” car crashes (great stuff!) and the current, quirky Das Auto effort.
If you’re selling computers, you don’t do this. You don’t get crazy with the spokesman and threaten to unnerve the children. But if you’re a stuck at number 2 in the burger wars with only a few million in Whoppers between you and number 3, Wendy’s, you might want to take a few risks with the brand.
The King is really just the ringleader of a wide range of oddball stuff, including Crispin’s first effort, the Subservient Chicken, and moving on to other, um, unusual elements such at the Enormous Omelet, and Chicken Fries. (What obesity epidemic? Here, try our Triple Whopper.) The brand approach appears willing to exchange breadth of appeal for improved impact on their core audience.
And the new King brings to the forefront the question of how flexible a brand concept can be. Not every ad features the king. Though most of the communications keep the same irreverent feel, many of the executions are intriguing without being uncomfortable. The dancing Whoppers was an award winning spot that debuted on the Super Bowl and the “I wish I’d never been broiled!” retort by Whopper Junior to his Dad in the kitchen of their burger family home is still one of my favorite ad moments of the last few years.
So the King may be strange, he may only have 189 friends on Facebook, but he is far more entertaining than Ronald McDonald. And you probably read this far because you’ve been thinking about him, too. Has the sales needle moved appreciably with the King behind the wheel? It depends who you ask. But as a strategy to jumpstart a brand back into our consciousness, he’s gettin’ it done right. Long live the King!