NEW YORK On April 8 of last year, something odd emerged on the Web: a chicken dressed in garters that could do seemingly any command viewers requested.
After being seeded into several Internet chat rooms, the "Subservient Chicken" instantly struck a nerve with bloggers, in part because the site's technology allowed users to type in nearly anything and get a response from the chicken. He could do jumping jacks, dance, do push-ups and even watch television. He seemed impossible to stump. Within a day after being released, the site had a million hits. Within a week, it had received 20 million hits. Who was behind this strange Web phenomenon? Many visitors to the site were surprised to see it was Burger King.
In addition to Web surfers, the creative community applauded the campaign. "It was so amazingly different and such a good use of the technology," says freelancer Matt Vescovo, one of the judges who selected the campaign to win the gold at the Viral Awards last month, even over his own MTV "Instructoart" campaign. "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."
But did it sell those chicken sandwiches? In the first of a recurring feature examining the effectiveness of greatly lauded campaigns, we dissect the "Subservient Chicken," and its "Chicken Fight" follow-up, to find out how well they worked.
Burger King had never been the leader in chicken sandwiches, and until it introduced the TenderCrisp Chicken Sandwich in March 2004, its Original Chicken Sandwich had lagged behind similar fast-food chain offerings, such as Wendy's chicken sandwich. "We were underserved out there in the fried chicken sandwich category," says Brian Gies, vp of marketing impact at Miami-based Burger King. In order to better compete, the company introduced a new TenderCrisp Chicken Sandwich last year that used a higher grade of meat, better batter and other improvements. "[It] came back in test markets with extremely strong results," says Gies. "We wanted to launch the product and make a splash with a new product introduction in an unconventional way, but at the same time, staying true to the brand promise ['Have it your way']."
A Web campaign, with its guaranteed interactivity, unlike print or TV, was a logical place to explore the "Have it your way" strategy, says Andrew Keller, creative director at Burger King's lead agency, Crispin Porter + Bogusky in Miami, which oversaw creative development on the campaign. "Interactive media are a great place for us to be because that's really the media that most closely resembles what we're trying to offer in store."
"We were really targeting young adults and many of them are very engaged in the online non-traditional format," adds Gillian Smith, senior director of media and global collaboration at Burger King.
"We don't really believe in the TV spot. We wanted to help spread media out and try other things. It's something that we've been working on, and the BK account is one place we thought, 'Hey this could be very effective. We might as well give this a shot,' because it wasn't going to cost a lot money," Keller explains. "The bull's-eye target is the 18- to 45-year-old guy, who spends a lot of time on the Internet. We wanted to push the edge a bit more in media and be more controlled and more focused, more of an opt-in media vs. TV, which is kind of mass and everybody sees it."
The TenderCrisp Chicken Sandwich was introduced in stores on March 19. The Web site, conceived and built by CP+B creatives, including interactive creative director Jeff Benjamin, and The Barbarian Group in Boston, went live April 8. For the Web site, creatives thought up about 400 commands and filmed an actor in a chicken suit acting them out, and then programmed them into the Web site to allow anything viewers typed in to get a response.
A week later, three 30-second TV spots began airing on late night network television, showing the "Subservient Chicken" living and interacting with 20-somethings, who all lusted after the chicken. In one spot, for example, a man makes the chicken try on different outfits, to find one to his liking. Only one print ad ran as part of the campaign; an insert in ESPN the Magazine's Oct. 25 issue featured a cut-out chicken mask. In-store materials, created by Wunderman in Chicago, focused on product attributes.
A second campaign began in October to introduce the Spicy TenderCrisp Chicken Sandwich. The campaign centered around a mock fight between actors dressed as chickens, which was promoted like a real televised sporting event. Two 30-second and two 15-second spots, which broke in mid-October on network cable and syndication, introduced the characters, "Spicy" and "TC," or TenderCrisp.
"With 'Chicken Fight,' we really wanted to dial up the fact that we believed [TenderCrisp] to be the best chicken sandwich on the market," Keller explains. "We also wanted to launch a spicy version of the sandwich. So we thought the best way to make ourselves the champion by default would be to have our two chicken sandwiches [fight each other]. There's no way to lose that competition."
The 12-minute fight aired Nov. 5 on DirecTV as part of an hour of programming. It also ran online immediately following the broadcast. The Web site, www. chickenfight.com, allowed consumers to vote on who they wanted to win the fight, and also featured a chicken-fight game viewers could play themselves. The site went down at the end of January.
Though the privately held company declines to share specific sales returns on the effort, BK marketing executives describe the campaign as "a success."
BK's Smith says the campaign not only engaged visitors to spend an average of six to seven minutes on the site, but it became a pop culture favorite. The chicken even served as host for Fox's Sunday night lineup, appearing briefly before and after shows in promos.
The "Subservient Chicken" site, which is still active, has garnered about 14 million unique visitors and 396 million hits to date, a success which was a relief to the client. "You never know when you go unconventional whether it is the best way to go," Gies says. "This one really came together." The "Chicken Fight" Web site, which was live for only three months, garnered 750,000 unique visitors and 17 million hits, according to the company.
But, aside from Web traffic, did the campaign actually drive customers into stores to buy the sandwich? About a month after the TenderCrisp sandwich debuted, BK reported that sales had steadily increased an average of 9 percent a week. Since then, Geis says the company has seen "double-digit" growth of awareness of the TenderCrisp Chicken Sandwich and "significantly increased" chicken sandwich sales. And the TenderCrisp does sell better than the Original Chicken Sandwich.
Keller says he knows only anecdotal results, but to him, they lean toward the positive. "Foot traffic is my biggest concern," he says. "I want people going to BK, talking about BK. I got a call from a friend of my wife. She said, 'I was in Burger King and I don't know why.' That to me is an effect of advertising."
However, at least one franchise owner remains skeptical of the narrowly targeted approach. "It's difficult to show a causal relationship between sales and the advertising," he says. While overall "system sales are doing well," and the chicken sandwiches are selling "reasonably well," he expresses concern about the limited appeal of such creative. "In the long term, this thing has to evolve," he says. "I'm more of a traditionalist. I like to see the food."
Ron Paul, an analyst at Technomic in Chicago, says the No. 2 hamburger chain (behind McDonald's) saw sales grow 14 percent in January. In October, same-store sales were up 6.9 percent, compared with last year. In November, they were up 9.1 percent, and in December, 13.1 percent. Despite the closings of hundreds of stores due to bankruptcy, Paul says, "They appear to definitely be in recovery mode. Their poor times are behind them, and they're hitting on all eight cylinders."