BK, Crispin Dish on ‘The King’

How do you create edgy, prize-winning work like Burger King’s “Whopper Virgins,” “Sponge Bob Square Butts” and “Kingon Nipple Pinch”? For Crispin Porter + Bogusky — agency of the year at 50th anniversary CLIO Awards — the key is being willing to take risks and stay edgy over the long haul.

“We have to keep creating social currency. If we don’t, we’ll die,” said BK CMO Russ Klein, in response to a query about the brand’s propensity to court controversy with its frequently polarizing style of advertising. “You have to have the stomach for taking risks. We don’t go out of our way to offend people. We do go out of our way to create tension.

Klein and Rob Reilly, evp and partner at Crispin, spoke at a keynote interview with Adweek ad critic Barbara Lippert at the CLIOs here last week.
Klein emphasized that both agency and client cultures have the “same kind of risk tolerance, or you wouldn’t be able to sustain that [style of in-your-face marketing] over the long term.”

With McDonald’s entrenched as the category’s “gold standard and frame of reference,” BK and Crispin – as soon as they started working together six years ago — immediately sought to stand apart via an edgier advertising sensibility, Klein said. Agency and client immediately strove to find areas of tension for the chain’s “super fans,” the 20 percent of consumers that represent more than half of all visits to the restaurants.

“It’s our job as marketers to position and juxtapose our brand with something that is inherent to us,” said Klein. “The challenger mentality is perhaps a little stormier brand position — and a more adolescent tonality is a nice contrast.”
And the iconic King brand mascot embodies that challenger position. Klein said the King’s inherent creepiness and ability to generate a bit of unease in consumers is in fact a key strength. “I hope you are a little scared and you should be,” he said. 
The BK CMO explained that it would have been a natural risk-management move to make the King “happy and demonstrative and safe,” but “we made a conscious decision that this is going to be a character we are going to manage enigmatically. We are going to create a certain Phantom of the Opera mystery because that’s a much more provocative and long-term way of managing that icon. We don’t mind him being creepy.”

Reilly related the story of the King’s birth: “It started with a breakfast thing: how to revitalize breakfast and how to make something that you couldn’t confuse with McDonald’s.” The agency had sold the idea of ‘waking up with the King,’ and considered how to avoid casting an actor in the role. Crispin instead decided to model the character on an oversized ’70s-era BK head that topped helium casters used to blow up balloons. Since tracking down the original model for that piece prove difficult — and using the caster-face might have presented a legal challenge — the shop decided to model the face of its King on a staffer: copywriter Bob Cianfrone.
Discussing the brand’s success with movie tie-ins, such as the current Star Trek promotion featuring “Kingons” who use nipple twists to get their hands on collectibles, Klein explained: “We are not just a restaurant, we are a social brand. You have to participate in pop-culture. [That] can include videogames, movies. That’s part of the balancing act in driving our own product agenda and marketing calendar, and taking advantage of things that can amplify our topicality.”

The BK CMO and agency co-ecd concluded by offering advice for success.