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Two Meaningful Campaigns That Fall Short

When I first started blogging a few years ago, I read some advice that suggested that you have to be critical every once in a while. You can’t be a cheerleader for your pet cause, and you can’t make friends with everyone. Rather, you must stand for something and produce constructive criticism when it makes sense. I believe this is true, as my favorite bloggers and journalists don’t just spew roses.

I’ve mainly done this through periodic posts under the category “Marketing Without Meaning,” where I blast advertising efforts that completely fail to improve people’s lives. Today I want to do something different. Here I will critique two attempts at meaningful marketing that have missed the mark, in hopes that we all can learn lessons about mistakes to avoid.

Burger King’s Wallet Drop

Burger King is actually one of my favorite meaningful marketers. In my upcoming book I devote several pages to the story of Burger King’s turnaround, which was completely founded on building “connections” with a focused target of young men. An early example, Subservient Chicken, just turned 5 years old.

I learned about this “wallet drop” viral campaign from Burger King last week when I was presenting to a marketing class at Miami University. It seems that in a few cities across the country around November 2008, Burger King purposely dropped hundreds or thousands of wallets in public places for passersby to discover. Upon opening the wallets, people found cash ranging from $1 to $100 and other items such as a map of nearby Burger King restaurants and a fake “The King” driver’s license.

It is a clever idea, but the problem is that it does not seem to have generated the buzz the brand hoped for. I think it’s pretty obvious that the effort and expense of this campaign is a failure if the only outcome is a few thousand people finding wallets and feeling better about BK. Rather, the strategy was most likely set up to have a few finders and journalists spark a blitz of attention to the campaign. Unfortunately for Burger King, the viral fire never seemed to catch. There are only a handful of blog posts about the effort, and almost no traditional media covered the campaign. This is surprising based on the fact that Burger King’s constant supply of edgy advertising naturally attracts extra attention.

I think the biggest problem with the campaign is that it’s just not that interesting or viral. Wallet drop campaigns have been done before, and enclosing a couple of bucks and a coupon is not that clever. I think Burger King could have had more success if it did something to help generate news and make people aware of the chance to find a wallet. For example, create a simple website where people could post where they found the wallets, and where The King could say where he is going next.

KFC’s “Fresh Roads”

I’ll stick with the restaurant business and next review a recent example of cause-related marketing from KFC. The brand recently announced that it would be offering interested cities the chance to have potholes repaired at no cost… well, except for the right to paint a “Re-freshed by KFC” ad over the new pavement. The effort aims to help cities that are struggling to meet budget needs, while drawing attention to the KFC brand’s fresh-chicken campaign.

First, let me say that KFC, like Burger King, gets an “A” for effort. It’s a great first step to move away from another round of annoying ads and actually do something of value to society with the marketing budget itself.

But there are two big problems with the KFC idea. First, it is a really poor link to the brand equity. There’s a touch of cleverness linking KFC and roads (Get it? Chicken crossing the road?), and an attempt to link fresh roads with fresh chicken, but it’s really a bridge too far. A dirty, disgusting street should in no way be linked to a fresh, great-tasting bucket of chicken. I have found clients in the food business to usually be extremely picky about how their product is represented, and I was really surprised to see the brand accept the bad taste that automatically enters people’s minds when you link roads and food.

The second issue really revolves around the placement of advertising in public places in exchange for a donation. Let’s face it: Citizens don’t like advertising shoved in their faces, and they really don’t like government “selling out” public spaces. We don’t look positively on the new trend of selling ad space on school buses or police cars, and McDonald’s was drawn and quartered for a local promotion in Florida where report-card printing costs were covered in return for a Happy Meal ad. These last-resort marketing gimmicks do nothing but remind us of the sad state of government leadership, and suggest that our society is worsening over time. So it’s not appropriate for KFC to remind us of this by splashing a logo across its freshly filled pothole.


I actually find that critiquing other brands’ attempts at meaningful marketing is about the hardest thing I’ve done in this blog. We are at the early days of igniting this revolution, and I hate to pooh-pooh the work of people who are genuinely trying something new. I’m sure that the brand team at KFC had to move mountains internally to try something different, and now they are getting “I told you so’s” across the board.

At the same time, for this next evolution of marketing to take hold, we need to have good, open discussions about what works and what doesn’t. And brands should understand that it takes time and a failure or two to finally figure out what it takes to succeed.

7 Responses to “Two Meaningful Campaigns That Fall Short”

  1. Tela says:

    Great, thought-provoking post, Bob.

    And wow, that KFC campaign is REALLY bad. I didn’t even get the chicken crossing the road connection until you mentioned it. I was just wondering “Chicken, potholes, what?”

  2. Adam Kmiec says:

    Not to mention that the BK idea is a direct rip off of the brilliant work Fallon did to introduce United’s Ted Airlines.

  3. Great criticism. From an advertising/marketing person I’m pumped about the creativity and hard core implementation of these ideas. However, advertising doesn’t really mean anything unless it catches fire and create a buzz.

    Definitely have to respect their efforts though.

  4. Nice thoughtful analysis. Perhaps on KFC would have been better off just to put something about “Not chicken of hard work. KFC” or a series of pot hole headlines that focus on doing good, not self promoting. “Hungry holes filled by KFC.”

  5. Marc Connor says:

    Great push on the KFC approach…like you I applaud the community-based approach…but there are many opportunities to contribute and the smartest brands develop or find those that are a natural extension of their equity so that its meaning is obvious.
    As for the BK concept, I applaud the desire to create something that is “buzzworthy”…but I don’t really see the meaning here even if it had caught fire. I suspect they were thinking of the economy…but the idea lacks real meaning…and I think that’s why it didn’t catch on.

  6. Bob says:

    Thanks for all the great comments, folks.

    I think folks tend to agree that just getting buzz is not enough, but credit them for making an attempt. What’s great is that with the world of social media, the brand can get feedback from hundreds of smart marketers like you all. Maybe next time they will float an idea like this to the community or a handful of experts before going for it.

    Nice copy idea, Derek!

  7. Tiffany says:

    In an attempt to not sound indecisive, I agree with your comments, and the comments of your other followers. However, as a consumer if I saw that KFC had invested in my city I would pay them back by frequenting their establishment. I am one of those people that support others who are doing it right. Is KFC getting advertising out of it, yes. As a consumer I get it, but I also get the fact that it is ad dollars going towards something positive.

    I believe consumers are more open to seeing advertising in their everyday lives. We are seeing more and more product placement on tv. In fact, Brita and Walmart had a great placement on The Biggest Loser just this week. This was much more memorable than any print piece I may have skimmed over in a magazine.

    As marketers we are challenged to find innovative ways to reach our consumers. All too often we get caught up in the limitations of our mediums. We all need to step back and truly understand the mind set of our target consumers. This is a good push for me personally as I look to push innovation across my brands.

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