Burger King Has It Their Way

Trolling Trump Turns a Marketing Coup into Controversy

1/16/19 – – Pop Quiz: You’re the head of marketing for a major consumer brand in a product category broadly criticized for damaging the health of Americans. Out of the blue, the President of the United States places your product at the center of a positive celebration in the White House. News media outlets are showcasing your product being enjoyed by young, high-achieving individuals participating in the event. Wanting to make the most of this unexpected opportunity, you should make every effort to:

a. Build positive momentum on your social media platforms by expressing pride and appreciation for being included.

b. Shut up and let the media coverage and online conversation play out.

c. Find a way to embarrass and pick a fight with the President.

If you answered “c,” there may be a job for you in marketing and communications at Burger King.

On January 14, members of the Clemson University football team visited the White House to celebrate their victory over the University of Alabama in the 2019 NCAA College Football National Championship. Wanting to be hospitable — and recognizing the staffing challenges created by the government shutdown — President Trump ordered out. Burgers, fries and other fast-food delicacies from McDonald’s, Wendy’s and Burger King were delivered to 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. It was clear from the media coverage of the event that the proud young athletes enthusiastically approved of the President’s food choices.

You would think that this free product placement would be a fast-food marketer’s dream: healthy people, celebrating the highest level of achievement, loving your product alongside your top competitors, on a very prestigious stage. Even if you factor in the President’s underwater approval rating (actually, Trump’s approval rating is about the same as President Obama’s after the first midterm elections of his presidency) you would not look this gift horse in the mouth.

But that’s exactly what Burger King did the next day when the President misspelled “hamburgers” in this tweet :

Great being with the National Champion Tigers last night at the White House. Because of the Shutdown I served them massive amounts of Fast Food (I paid), over 1000 hamberders etc. Great guys and big eaters!

The error was corrected quickly, but Burger King decided to call out the misspelling with this tweet:

due to a large order placed yesterday, we’re all out of hamberders. just serving hamburgers today.

McDonald’s and Wendy’s chose to ignore the President’s typo. Predictably, the internet exploded with supportive and indignant reviews of Burger King’s response. An excellent Associated Press article (“Burger King Trolls Trump on Twitter”) shared this professional analysis:

Laura Ries, an Atlanta-based marketing consultant, said she understands companies wanting to be part of the social media conversation. But they should keep the message positive, not mocking. “It’s totally the wrong tone. It’s not funny. It’s mean,” she said. “No matter what you think of the president, it’s still the president.”

In a statement to AP, Burger King defended its tweet as “all in good fun,” insisting that the company “has a pulse on pop culture . . . We like to playfully joke around with what the internet and news outlets are saying, but never to be mean spirited.” Oh, and yes, it expressed pride in having its Whoppers served to the National Champions. (Too bad that key message was not delivered in Burger King’s initial tweet.)

When I headed communications for The Taubman Company, we owned the A&W Restaurant chain. We did a lot of research to figure out what people choosing a quick-serve restaurant experience valued most. I don’t remember political commentary being high on the list. In fact, ordering a burger, fries and a root beer float (maybe not the smartest nutritional choices) is often driven in part by a customer’s desire to escape life’s pressures, including politics.

If you hate Donald Trump, you may think Burger King’s tweet was brilliant and strengthens the brand’s connection with socially conscience consumers. If you’re okay with Trump, you probably think Burger King’s social media folks needlessly turned off Midwesterners and blue-collar workers, large segments of the brand’s customer base.

As a communications counselor focused on preventing crises from happening, I encourage companies to dispassionately go to school on the actions of others. It’s hard to balance your political views with professional judgment. And even harder to resist the temptation to respond impulsively rather than strategically to online chatter. But if you’re a marketing or communications executive alert to crisis prevention in today’s dynamic social environment, that’s a discipline you need to master. Let’s see how this all plays out.


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