Customer Engagement with an Edge

Absence makes the heart grow fonder, or something to that effect. Hence the interesting psychology of this gambit to trigger the latent emotions some customers have for a product or service. This is an older story (2008), but one worth telling. Suzanne Vranica, reports on how Burger King used product deprivation in a clever way:

Depriving Whopper fans of their favorite burger turns out to be a surefire way to get them to buy more. That, at least, is Burger King’s conclusion from its “Whopper Freakout” online and TV ad campaign. Timed to celebrate the flagship burger’s 50th anniversary, the ads showed what happened at two Burger King outlets in Nevada when — in a hoax filmed by hidden cameras — customers were told the Whopper had been taken off the menu. The reaction was stunned outrage.

“What are you going to put on the logo now — home of the ‘Whatever we got’?” cried one patron, shown on the ads. Another, shown in a longer video posted online, said “What, that is your thing though…Oh my God.”

Burger King, which began running the TV ads Dec. 9, credits the campaign for helping boost Whopper sales in the quarter that ended in December by a double-digit percentage. It “drove significant brand relevance and incremental sales,” executives said on an earnings conference call last week.

The videotaped hoax was a twist on a market research technique called “deprivation research,” in which marketers measure how loyal consumers are to a brand or product by taking it away from them. The insight gained helps marketers design new marketing and ad ploys that will resonate better with consumers.

A range of marketers have tried the technique. Dunkin’ Brands’ Dunkin’ Donuts, for instance, two years ago forced a group of its customers to drink Starbucks coffee for a week instead. Verizon Wireless also tried it a year ago, getting a group of teens, at least half of them Verizon customers, to give up using cell phones — theirs or anyone else’s — for a weekend. “It’s a great tool to understand what role a product plays in people’s lives,” says Lesley Bielby, chief strategy officer at Interpublic Group’s Hill, Holliday, Connors, Cosmopulos, who helped conduct the research for Dunkin’ Donuts and Verizon. Still, experts say it’s rare for the method to be used in actual consumer advertising.

To celebrate the Whopper’s big birthday, Burger King and its ad firm — MDC Partners’ Crispin Porter + Bogusky — decided on an elaborate version of the deprivation experiment. The mission: to prove Americans’ deep allegiance to
the famous burger.

Staged at two Las Vegas outlets over two full days, the chain brought in actors to play the role of cashiers. Eight hidden cameras recorded the results.

The experiment went one step further than Burger King’s previous deprivation studies. In another twist, some customers, who asked for a Whopper, were given burgers from rivals such as McDonald’s and Wendy’s. The result: Irate customers ended up returning the burgers, sometimes disparaging the competing brand. “I hate McDonald’s,” said a young male consumer.

All this was captured on film, overseen by documentary filmmaker Henry Alex Rubin, who was hired to ensure the film looked authentic. The final result was an eight-minute online video and a string of TV commercials that began running in December.

Since kicking off two months ago, the video has been played 3.3 million times on a special Burger King Web site and has had 357,367 views on YouTube. More importantly, Burger King says it helped sell burgers.

Staging what Crispin calls a “colossal prank” wasn’t without hiccups. In the planning stages the agency had to abandon any thought of using outlets in Los Angeles because of the difficulty of navigating California laws governing when people can be secretly videotaped. As some of the action was filmed outdoors, when consumers left the store, New York was ruled out because of the cold temperature. Crispin chose Nevada, in part, for its eclectic mix of people from around the country.

Another challenge: All the consumers who walked into the stores during the experiment had to be chased down afterward to sign release forms so they could be shown in the video and ads. Not everyone could be caught in time. One irate consumer who demanded Burger King’s “corporate number” to call in his complaint was so upset he jumped in his pickup truck and drove off. Crispin was forced to keep the footage under wraps.

“His reaction was great. We are still looking for the guy,” says Rob Reilly, Crispin’s co-chief creative officer.

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