If Burger King has its way, young moviegoers in the next year or so will flock to theaters to see Above the King, a comedy about a teen misfit, who just happens to live in an apartment over a Burger King restaurant, and his unlikely friendship with an aristocrat.
The company, which plans to spend $5 million making the quirky flick, hopes for the cult appeal and success of Napoleon Dynamite, a 2004 low-budget hit about an adolescent oddball. Burger King's celluloid dreams — this is but one idea — are being shopped to Hollywood studios by executive producer Christopher Moore, co-producer of Good Will Hunting. If it gets made, it is likely to be the first mainstream film written and produced by a marketer and its ad agency, and it is part of what Russell Klein, Burger King's head of marketing, calls "an allout full gallop to catch up with our consumer."
Burger King's scramble is centered on wacky advertising and new-media initiatives. The company proudly trumpets its traditional, fat-soaked fare on TV, cell phones and popular Web sites aimed at "Super Fans" — mostly young men who pop into fast-food restaurants 16 times a month on average. The current emphasis on marketing is reminiscent of its big ad push several decades ago: Burger King has even revived its 1974 tagline, "Have it your way," which Klein believes resonates with tech-savvy burger fans.
Its mascot is back, too. The current king, an updated version of a 1960s character, is a mute guy with a gigantic plastic mask, frozen-in-place smile, bejeweled crown and wine-colored robe. This fellow has appeared in 24 weird TV commercials — in one spot, a fast-foodie is surprised to wake up with the king in his bed — and an animated version will soon star in three videogames.
The fast-food company is spending upwards of $5 million to develop games for Microsoft's Xbox and Xbox 360 consoles. As early as next month gamers will be able to compete with its mascot on motorcycle speedways and in bumper car rides in games that will be sold in Burger King outlets for $4 with the purchase of a meal.
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The king gets around. Its mascot has his own profile on MySpace.com, the popular social-networking Web site where 133,355 profiles are linked to his. These supposed fans, mostly guys, write things like "I love you! I want you. ..." and "Dude, you rock!" Also on MySpace, Burger King has been among the first advertisers to sponsor free content downloads, offering episodes of the Fox series 24. Meanwhile, on Heavy.com, a site with user-created videos, there are amateur clips with people wearing the king's mask. (In one, a guy in a king costume who appears to be in his 20s drives up to a McDonald's and repeatedly asks for a Whopper, frustrating the order taker.)
Indeed, impersonating the king is apparently irresistible to some fast-food fans. A plastic king mask, which the company plans to offer at $10 in time for Halloween, was recently listed for sale at $100 on Ebay.
Burger King's marketing blitzkrieg started in 2004, when its ad agency, Crispin Porter & Bogusky, created a Web site featuring a guy in a chicken suit who responded to typed commands. Within a week of its launch www.subservientchicken.com, which is still active, had 52 million visits that lasted, on average, eight minutes.
"We're really trying to do something different and not just give consumers a straight ad over and over," says Gillian Smith, senior director of media and interactive.
Burger King has shelled out a total of $730 million on U.S. advertising since 2004, says TNS Media Intelligence, which comes close to 4 percent of U.S. systemwide store sales. (For the June 30 fiscal year the company's revenue, largely from company-owned restaurants, was $2.05 billion.) Klein, the company's sixth marketing chief in a decade, credits the efforts with helping boost annual sales for the average franchise from $940,000 in 2002 to $1.1 million this year.
It's easy for the company to look decent after faring so poorly for so long. The world's second-largest burger purveyor languished from 1998 through 2004, with same-store sales that declined or were flat each year. During that time many of their franchisees struggled because they were overleveraged. In December 2002 private equity partners Texas Pacific Group, Bain Capital Partners and the Goldman Sachs Funds bought Burger King from Diageo Plc. for $1.5 billion.
But clever marketing goes only so far. Burger King's North American same-store sales growth of 3.5 percent in the first half of this year trailed results at McDonald's. Since the owners raised $425 million by selling shares to the public in May at $17, the stock has gone sideways, closing recently at $16.25.
"How do they translate (the advertising) to 'I want to come back to Burger King because of the food and the rest of the experience'? That's the challenge," says Allen Adamson, New York managing director of Landor Associates, a branding firm.
Klein insists the company is getting there. "Everything we do is purposeful," says he. "We're not just setting our hair on fire to attract attention."
© 2012 Forbes.com