Interview: Gillian Smith

Senior director of media and global collaboration, Burger King

Senior director of media and global collaboration, Burger King

Burger King has received many accolades for viral marketing, from its Subservient Chicken website to SithSense.com, its recent Star Wars tie-in. The fast food corporation also served as one of the first companies, independent of Apple, to sponsor content for the video iPod. Smith discussed the company's marketing philosophy, how it approaches consumer-generated marketing, and what initiatives don't work in the online environment.

Q: When did Burger King decide to pursue such a robust online strategy?
A:
A few years ago, we recognized that we needed an online presence. We had the BurgerKing.com website for years, where we had some interactive elements like a nutrition wizard. We had tried placing ads on other websites at that time, but the click-through rates were only ever moderate, at best. We soon realized that we don't sell burgers online; we're not an online retailer. Placing ads to drive people to our corporate website only served a limited purpose. We realized that our BurgerKing.com site is great for what people are looking for [like nutrition facts], but there it wasn't really a place for our core audience. We didn't have anything else that was specifically designed for them on the web. Overall, we began to realize we could create our own media space. This idea came [to fruition] a year and a half ago through Subservient Chicken with Crispin Porter & Bogusky. It was phenomenally successful, and we learned from that. We've done a lot of subsequent microsites, and we now understand what works and what doesn't with microsites. Additionally, we can apply these learnings to other emerging technologies. We're constantly asking, "How can we reach consumers in new and unusual ways?" These emerging mediums are always integrated with the other mediums that we use. We're trying to have a 360-degree, integrated approach when we talk to our consumers. Online, the marketing we use is generally going to be entertainment-focused, but still aligned with whatever product or message we're trying to talk about.

Q: Do you think consumers are comfortable conversing with corporations as long as they get entertainment out of the exchange?
A:
Consumers recognize when they're being advertised to. You don't need to make your marketing overt for them to understand where it's coming from. As long as you make it fun and give them something that they otherwise would not have gotten, they will respect you more as a brand.

Q: The 30-second ad is under attack and companies are looking for better ROI elsewhere. What would you say is the core benefit of online marketing?
A:
It plays a huge role in consumer's perception of your brand. Consumers think differently about you and that helps to drive brand preference. Obviously, our goal is to get people into our restaurants to buy food and have a great experience. So we have to rely very heavily on the 30-second commercials in order to achieve that goal. When people talk about the decline of the 30-second ad, it may be because they think the television creative isn't always quite as good.

Q: How important do you think it is, in the minds of consumers, to be considered as a company that embraces new online marketing?
A:
For us, it's not so much about [consumers saying], "Oh wow, Burger King is doing video iPod downloads." It's more about the personality we're allowing to come through in those different ways. It's not which medium they get the message in; it's what the message is.

Q: You sponsored consumer-generated videos for the iPod on Heavy.com. Some of those videos involved King masks. Was that the first time you included brand enthusiasts in some marketing endeavor?
A:
Well, we didn't create that content you see on Heavy.com. The website actually sent out the King mask to users. All we did as a corporation is produce [and provide] those masks. We embrace just about anything that consumers are going to do with the King masks. Because we're not telling them how to use the mask or giving them any sort of rules, it's just something fun and different for them. Our partnership with [Heavy.com] allows us to merge this user-generated content with our sponsorship of its video iPod downloads section.

Q: But does there need to be a certain corporate culture in place to take calculated risks such as that?
A:
The corporate culture does allow us to do that. We're a brand that is willing to take calculated risks. But if someone were to do something [bad] with the Burger King mask, everyone would know that it's not Burger King Corporation doing that. We want to protect ourselves, but I think we need to make sure we're not too protective of the brand. People are doing a lot of crazy things with the King mask. Some guy went into a Florida State University lecture with the mask and gave the professor chicken tenders. Obviously with subservient chicken, we knew that someone sometime would type in a pornographic word, so we had to make sure the chicken wouldn't respond to those commands.

Q: How is the interactive department set up?
A:
We're not a big department. Two other people and I are responsible for all media: television and radio. We rely very heavily on our external partners, such as Crispin and DML, our interactive agency of record.

Q: What's an example of marketing that won't work online?
A:
We need to make sure we don't force anything or try too hard. We know microsites look best with something that looks like it involves a new technology. We know people are intrigued if they can't figure out how something works. We knew that going into the creation of SithSense.com, [where Darth Vader guesses what the visitor was thinking by asking 20 questions]. We knew we would have a lot of success with that because people wouldn't be able to figure it out. Microsites become sticky when people come back again and again to try something new. We also find they work best when they're truly interactive versus something that is passive. Through these sites, consumers can interactive with our brand in a way they can't in the restaurant or with TV advertising.

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