Burger King gets mad, even

How Jason Keown is leveraging Canadians’ appetites for premium burgers to drive sales to a 15-year high.

How Jason Keown is leveraging Canadians’ appetites for premium burgers to drive sales to a 15-year high

“If the Burger King brand was a member of your family, we’d like to be your cool uncle,” says Jason Keown, senior director of marketing at Burger King Canada, over the din of the Metro Centre food court in downtown Toronto. “That’s a brand I enjoy working on, and I think it fits my personality.”
The 38-year-old Alberta native has spent most of his career managing retail accounts from the agency side – the lion’s share for QSR brands including McDonalds, Taco Bell, KFC – and for the last two years, the badass of the burger bunch, from the other side of the table. Notorious worldwide for its loud, unapologetic advertising (before “Whopper Sacrifice,” there was a little thing called “Subservient Chicken,” both from Miami-based global AOR Crispin Porter + Bogusky) the number-two burger brand in the world seems to revel in its challenger status.
“The Burger King brand is all about being bold, and bold is a relative term,” says Keown. “What’s bold to Americans may not be bold to Canada.”
Here, where flannel-wearing Tim Hortons is king of the QSRs (McDonald’s comes second), BK is embracing its bad-boy challenger status. The Consumer Report on Eating Share Trends (CREST) rankings from third-party NPD Group, based on dollar sales and occasions, place Burger King fifth among fast-food burger restos behind Ronald, the Root Bear, Wendy and DQ in the 12 months ending November 2009. Now, with 296 restaurants – mostly traditional, standalone locations as well as mall, airport and movie theatre formats – across Canada, Burger King has “a good foothold in all of the markets but we’re far from over-penetrated,” says Keown.

“The biggest complaint that we get from our customers is that there’s not enough restaurants…once we have those restaurants, [our goal is] making sure that they are providing that brand image that we want. We talk about youth and their changing views and what they think is cool – we want to keep pace with that, to continually update.”
Keown is working to “focus in on the strengths and not try to be all things to all people,” he says. That strength, put simply, is the burger – namely, the Whopper. The latest embodiment of that effort is the Steakhouse XT; at 5.5 oz, it is Canada’s largest, thickest patty. Keown says the launch campaign fits the brand like a biker glove, “paying homage to the flame-broiled taste that we have, [with] flame icons, black colours.”
The campaign offers up the XT as an alternative to more expensive steakhouse burgers. The “Unfreakout” TV spot (created by Crispin and adapted for French and English Canada) uses a mock-hidden camera gag to “surprise” BK customers who aren’t shocked at all to learn they’re eating a Whopper instead of a fancy steakhouse burger.
Domestic AOR Taxi 2 elaborated the concept online in English and French with rich media ads that invite hungry surfers to light a virtual candle on a table to set the mood for the premium, flame-broiled burger. When the candle tips over and lights the table on fire, the punchline reads, “Whoops. Maybe fancy isn’t your thing.”
While the focus on burgers seems like a no-brainer, it’s finding the right balance of premium and value items that’s the trick, says Keown. Each country modifies this global “barbell” strategy, selecting the product mix that best suits local taste. In Canada, that taste has been for premium products, which has been getting the attention of global.
“The industry number for what we would define as premium represents about 5% of burger occasions, but it’s growing faster than any other segment, it was up 15% last year,” says Keown. “So [it’s] still very small, but growing. And we’ve been leading that in Canada with our premium strategy.”

The retail testing platform for BK’s product innovations is the Whopper Bar, a soda counter format currently in two locations, Orlando and Munich, with two more opening soon in Miami and Malaga, Spain. (Keown hopes to have one in Western Canada by next year.) The XT, for instance, has been available at Whopper Bars since last year, and Canada picked it up for March-April based on the recent success of other premium products such as the Angry Whopper, which sold out here in six weeks, and the Bourbon Whopper, the Canadian-made TV creative for which is being picked up by Latin America.
On the other end of the barbell is the value strategy, which Keown identified as one latent asset to be leveraged when he came on board in March 2008. The “King Deals” program had been around for five years, but it was only when the Canadian team hit upon the current format – making a different regular menu item available for $1.99 every day, rather than offering a separate value menu at a reduced price – and getting franchise support to take the program country-wide, that it started to show real results.
Taken together, in Keown’s first fiscal year the premium and value strategy drove same-store restaurant sales in Canada to a 15-year high. “Once we did that we started getting some attention from the rest of the world,” he says. Three-quarters of the way through this fiscal, the company is on track to beat that number.
This balanced strategy caters to what Burger King calls the “super fan,” a customer who visits often and has a constant hunger for something new. “Because they are going regularly, they are looking for new tastes and new promotions, and that’s why it’s important that we have something every couple of months.”

“What I really enjoy is seeing marketing theories come to life, because in QSR it happens that fast: you can see your impact immediately, on your pricing or your product selection or your communications strategy. You know right away based on the daily sales whether it’s working or not.”
To keep up the pace, Keown has taken a focused approach. “Every company only has so much time, money, days in a month, and there’s this danger of adding too many things and not doing anything well,” he says. “My approach is to do fewer things, but to do them better.”
Keown meets with his agency partners once a week to review sales numbers and tweak tactics. Taxi 2, Wunderman and Initiative have also led the brand to experiment in the digital space. The first effort was for Angry Whopper, a spicy sandwich launched out of the U.K. and first introduced in Canada in December 2008. Keown’s team brought it back for a second round, this time supported by advertising. Online at Burgerking.ca/getangry, the “Angrrrometer” measured the results of users’ rage – an emotion that few brands can own successfully.
“I don’t think there’re a lot of brands that could get you to yell at your computer but we’re one of them,” Keown says, adding that sales were up 10% over the first effort.
After the success of the Angry Whopper, Keown is moving into the digital space with more confidence. In February, the “Breakfast on the King” program gave away free sandwiches in the morning for one day only, to raise BK’s profile as a breakfast option.
Afterward, they found that 75% of traffic was generated online as opposed to via in-store promotions. “People had picked up our email or the ad on the website and flipped it to their friend,” says Keown. “It really shows you the power of that medium, when done right.”
So we can expect more viral efforts from the King in 2010, he concludes. “What’s taking up more of our resources right now is the intrusive advertising, getting people’s attention, people that aren’t necessarily thinking of Burger King right now.”



Born: Gibbons, AB., March 7, 1971
Education: B Comm. with a focus on marketing, University of Alberta
First job out of school: Calder Bateman in Edmonton. “When I started there [in ’95] they had 12 people. It was terrific because it allowed me to wear a lot of different hats”
Career path: He moved from CB to Palmer Jarvis and worked on McDonald’s as the agency transitioned into PJ DDB. When the business moved to Cossette, Keown moved too, opening the Edmonton and Winnipeg offices and ultimately moving east to Toronto. In 2004 he joined Y&R Toronto to work on the retail business which included Yum! Brands’ portfolio of fast-feeders
Size of marketing team: Seven – five at HQ in Etobicoke, ON., one in Saskatoon and one in Quebec


Three questions for Jason Keown

Favorite Burger King meal?
You know I’m going to say the Whopper, of course. Hold the onions.

How do you like living in the Centre of the Universe?
The time that I’ve spent in other markets, being brought up in the West, with other brands, gives me an understanding of the differences across Canada and I keep that in mind as we’re developing things here in Toronto.

Still an Oilers fan?
Of course. They’re having a very tough year, but that’s okay; this year is all about the Olympics, so I can get past that.