Whether it actually happened by design rather than accident, Burger King’s timing in announcing a tie-up with MySpace.com looks pretty shrewd. Coming as it does in the middle of the annual US network advertising negotiations, it sends out a clear message to “old media”: give us more of what we want, because now we really do have alternatives.
Of course, we have yet to see how the MySpace deal will pan out, but it has every appearance of being a serious investment by BK. The burger company’s move into the increasingly popular area of “social networking” cleverly aims to use television against itself. It does so by sponsoring a “Have it your way” page from which users can download, free of charge, two episodes of the blockbuster Fox series 24. MySpace, set up less than three years ago, claims to have 80 million registered users. It is latterly owned by Rupert Murdoch, who also owns Fox, and has, equally cleverly, seen the way things are going.
Burger King is only one of a legion of blue-chip brand owners actively seeking alternatives to mainstream television as a primary means of attracting media-promiscuous, light-viewing youth – the consumers of tomorrow. Many of them seem to be jumping aboard one of the most interesting initiatives to emerge this year – the Red brand. Now it’s true that former U2 frontman Bono, the irreducible essence of Red, is not exactly a phenomenon of the internet age, but he and his cause have some obvious parallels with the more overtly new media approach favoured by Burger King.
Both initiatives are in effect engaged in an elaborate form of good old-fashioned affiliate marketing. One is admittedly committed to a far more altruistic cause – ridding Africa of AIDS – than the other, which is primarily concerned with the self-preoccupied thrills of Web 2.0 entertainment. But for marketers, the similarities are more important than the differences: the important thing is to have a sustainable idea to which to hitch their brand. They are right to see both types of initiative as a means of increasing the number and loyalty of their customers, at a time when traditional media outlets are offering diminishing returns. But they are on less sure ground if they think that either or both of these initiatives are sustainable. They are unlikely to be, though they are vulnerable for slightly different reasons.
Red is essentially a celebrity endorsement: you buy into Bono, or you don’t. The personality of Bono is what gives the anarchic, apparently hopeless struggle against AIDS a cool, crusading focus. It breaks down conventional institutional barriers to action (one of them notoriously being big corporations’ relative miserliness compared with governments’ in topping up the Global Fund). But it’s only human, and it risks losing its cool edge in becoming too earnest and too platitudinous.
MySpace.com may also lose its cool, and spontaneous support, if it is unsubtly exploited by brands bent on corporate land-grabbing. It will be interesting to see how astutely Burger King pioneers the way.
Stuart Smith, Editor