Burger King Gets Real

Burger King keeps pushing the envelope. With work that’s refreshing, provocative and often very risky, BK is succeeding in carving out a distinctive brand with a personality that couldn’t be more different than arch rival (pun intended) McDonald’s.

Their latest effort focuses on two of my favorite topics, food and mental health. Sometimes these subjects are completely unrelated, but quite frequently they are intertwined. I’ve written many blogs on both subjects, individually and together.

I thought that Weight Watchers got it completely right a few years back with a campaign that tied the problem of overeating directly to emotion. A 60-second spot showed that virtually any situation, happy, sad and everything in between, provided an excuse to eat – and over-eat.

That the campaign flopped does not mean that the observation wasn’t valid. I thought it was brilliant. But the ad’s realistic, “shock of recognition” proved to be off-putting, not inspiring. The same fate might await Burger King’s latest effort, “Real Meals.” In partnership with Mental Health America, the promotion, limited to five major markets, aims at raising awareness for Mental Health Awareness Month in May.

Order a Whopper Meal, and you can choose to get it in the box of your choice to match your mood. Options include the Pissed Meal, Blue Meal, Salty Meal, YAAAS Meal and DGAF Meal. (If you’re over 50 or just out of it, visit the Urban Dictionary for translations of DGAF and YAAAS.)

As Adweek reports, “For reasons that should be obvious, “Happy” is not option.” Because no one is happy all the time and no meal, in and of itself, will make you happy. Unless it’s laced with cannabis, I suppose.

Burger King had ad agency MullenLowe U.S. create a short video called #FeelYourWay. It’s a real downer. Sampling the tune from the classic “Have It Your Way” campaign, we hear the stories of several people in despair. A teenager is being bullied at her high school. A guy gets ghosted by his girlfriend. A young adult wonders if he’ll ever move out of his parents’ house. A teen mom is crushed by a world that tells here she’s too young to take care of her baby.  Sometimes there’s a glimmer of hope at the end of their stories, but mostly not.

The video is a big a downer, but that’s the entire point. BK tells us that “No one is happy all the time. And that’s OK.” After unburdening their sorrows on us, the characters sing, “All I ask is that you let me feel my way.”

This isn’t a “Coke and a Smile.” It’s not a day at Disneyland where all families are perfect and love each other unconditionally. It’s not the promise of creativity and coolness when you buy an Apple product. This is real life.

Why would a company want to portray anything other than total bliss as the inevitable result of buying its products?

In marketing, we always talk about “feeling our customers’ pain,” and that’s’ exactly BK is trying to do. It’s a public service, or at least a nod in that direction (more on that later), but these highly relatable slices of life that demonstrate that you’re not alone if you’re not happy is also great brand strategy.  It tells us that BK is authentic and sincere. That BK gets it. If you’re down, they are not promising that you’ll walk out of the restaurant happy, even if your Whopper and fries just hit the spot. Magic is not on the menu today but we understanding is always available.

It’s also a nice bite-sized piece of sound mental health advice. We don’t want to obsess over our pain. But we have to acknowledge it, accept it, and work our way through to the other side.

Will the effort suffer the same fate as the aforementioned Weight Watchers campaign? The insights and strategies behind both efforts are sharp. But there are big problems in execution. Both try to tackle big, complex issues that are hard to address in one or two minutes of video.  Accordingly, the executions are more conceptual than typical marketing efforts, communicating types of negative emotions you generally don’t see in marketing. And then there’s the question of BK’s sincerity.

Will “Real Meals” be perceived as authentically motivated or a stunt? Will the effort be taken seriously?

Apparently not. The backlash on social media started right away. The L.A. Times reports:

“Seems that Brands have a history of using trending social issues to promote their products — and receiving backlash for trivializing the complexities of those issues. And whether or not Burger King really thinks its “YAAAS” or “Pissed” meals will raise awareness of mental health, we understand if they make you feel a bit salty about the whole thing. And that’s OK.

On Instagram, the first comment I saw was “WTF Burger King? Scrolling through Twitter I found one negative comment after another. One of the more articulate, obscenity-free comments:

The Burger King campaign is a gross attempt to use mental health to sell burgers. If your campaign for mental health confuses emotions with disorders, takes a shot at a competitor’s branding and pushes a product, you’re using a social issue, not supporting it.

I’m not sure I completely agree with that harsh assessment, one that might be considered “snitty,” as I feel the intentions were good and the depiction of “real” emotion had the potential to further distance BK from McDonald’s and cast the brand as more relevant.

However, in order to be taken more seriously, to be perceived as an effort to tangibly help people rather than a marketing stunt, BK should have done a better job of demonstrating the specific things they are doing in support of the cause. For example,

If you’re suffering, where can you get help?

How much are they donating to Mental Health America and/or other related causes? A percentage of Real Meal sales perhaps?

How does BK support its own employees struggling with mental health issues?

All we see is a brief graphic at the end of the video stating “Burger King supports the work of MentalHealthAmerica.net, we’re in the dark as to where we might get help. I don’t know if there’s signage in stores or copy on the Real Meal boxes. There are a few Tweets, Instagram and Facebook posts, but nothing at all on the BK website.

On the plus side, different packaging options in the restaurant might be fun for customers and generate conversation. Maybe it will be a better version of “Race Matters.”

And perhaps, by expressing that you’re in a foul mood to someone in the moment, you just might feel a bit better.

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