Burger King’s Dumb Social Experiment Shows Brands Must Avoid Politics like the Plague
If you stretch your brand too much, it could snap and break.
PHOTO CREDIT: Getty Images
Burger King has said for years that it wants to do things your way. Now it's extending the concept to ... net neutrality.
If that sounds just a bit nutty, it is. Questionable marketing campaigns happen, even with the best of intentions. Maybe the creative concept or execution is a bit off, a little clich. Or it could be that a company has joined the inadvertent racist ad hall of shame that has happened all too often.
Burger King's problem was all about brand identity while trying to do cause marketing. It decided to promote its own perceived benefits to consumers through a net neutrality experiment. Here's their explanation:
The recent repeal of Net Neutrality means that internet providers can throttle bandwidth, offer paid fast lanes, block and prioritize content as they wish1. The BURGER KING brand reenacted what this repeal could mean at the counter with people buying WHOPPER Sandwiches.
During the WHOPPER Neutrality experiment, BURGER KING restaurant guests that ordered their WHOPPER Sandwiches at the regular price had to wait a very long time to receive their orders. Other customers received their orders swiftly, because they paid increased fees for faster service. This caused infuriation. When the ultra-aggravated customers learned they were part of this WHOPPER Neutrality experiment, everything clicked.
Oh, the multiple ways this misfires. Let's go through them, not necessarily in order of importance.
Capitalizing on a public issue
Addressing public issues is tricky. Do it right and it can work well, like when Patagonia protested reductions of some national monuments by posting an overtly political message on its website. But it's more likely to be done poorly. You've likely come across terms like greenwashing and pinkwashing, which refer to trying to advance your business while pretending to support environmental or breast cancer treatment. Net neutrality is a serious topic for many, and unless you're absolutely sincere, you'll look bad. Skip netwashing.
Getting the topic wrong
If you want to address a public topic, for heaven's sake, make sure you understand it. For net neutrality, there are a number of considerations, but the big one is that companies, not consumers, would be forced to pay more to get access. People might not have as wide a variety of services as they could otherwise, because entrepreneurs might find themselves eventually pushed out of online markets when they lacked the cash to pay for fast connections consumers demanded. Talking about paying more to get your burger faster shows a lack of understanding, which means you're back to the first point.
Patagonia was able to talk about environmental issues because it sells outdoor gear and has long been active on that front. Companies that produce products for women have been active in breast cancer awareness campaigns for years. But burgers and net neutrality? There is no natural connection and Burger King strains trying to make one. The attempt sounds insincere, which gets us, again, back to the first point.
If you're going to direct your company to take a stand on a social issue, then be sure you have a natural connection, know what you're talking about, and have an honest agenda beyond trying to catch some national attention. Please don't combine a right to high speed internet with "hold the pickles."