BurgerFuel currently has 82 stores strewn across six countries, and there isn't a single agency lucky enough to officially call it a full-time client. Damien Venuto sits down with the company's marketing manager Alexis Lam to find out why he keeps most of the work in-house.
If you didn’t know the exact address, you’d miss it. Located at 66 Surrey Crescent in Grey Lynn, BurgerFuel’s headquarters are surprisingly inconspicuous for a brand typified by its bold blue and purple livery. From the outside, one could almost be forgiven for believing this was just an ordinary office. But first impressions can be deceiving; and, once the heavy wooden doors open, it becomes evident this is anything but a normal place of work.
Decked out with a ping-pong table, video games, a coffee bar, the waiting area feels very much like an indy agency. And this isn’t far from the truth, because BurgerFuel does conceptualise much of its creative work in-house.
As he walks me through the building showing me the breakout meeting rooms and various departments, BurgerFuel marketing manager Alexis Lam stresses time and time again that culture is everything to the company.
This, he says, is one of the main reasons why BurgerFuel has taken the relatively unconventional—some might say risky—approach of producing its own creative concepts.
“The idea of doing things in-house is about getting the best person to do the job, and that involves skill but also whether they get the culture,” Lam says.
“We like the idea of investing in people. [At an agency,] You can have a great creative or account director, but in two or three years they might leave. And I think that every marketer who’s had a relationship with an agency knows what it’s like when that key person leaves. It’s never quite the same."
But Lam isn't averse to agencies, and says they can achieve great things if they're able to influence the direction of a brand.
“I think an agency is ultimately best when they can have input into the brand and really fundamentally change the marketing. We’re not willing to relinquish that. But if companies can open up their business to the agency, it can work.”
Lam believes that by building a core team within the business, they are better positioned to create advertising that meets the specific requirements of the brand.
“The problem is that an agency has lots of different clients, so they’re trying to systemise and monetise what they do and push it across a whole lot of different people. By nature, they’re always going to say, ‘Well this strategy worked here, so let’s do it for client X, then Y and then Z and just tweak it a little.’ And it’s important for brands to be true to themselves.”
Those in adland might disagree with this by pointing out that in-house agencies don’t have a great track record when it comes to producing creative work. However, there does appear to be a trend of some clients taking at least a portion of their work in-house.
A US study of around 200 marketers conducted last year by the Association of National Advertisers found that the percentage of companies operating in-house agencies had jumped from 40 percent in 2008 to 56 percent last year.
“The sacrosanct marriage between client and agency is dead,” proclaimed Russel Wohlwerth, a principle at External View Consulting Group, at the time.
While the study posits cost reduction as a major reason underpinning the shift to in-house advertising, Lam is adamant that this isn’t why BurgerFuel takes this approach.
“It shouldn’t be a cost-saving exercise,” says Lam. “This is when the approach fails. It doesn’t work when you do it because you think: ‘We can do things cheaper. Let’s just bring in a junior.’”
BurgerFuel currently employs a team of 13 full-time staff members across copywriting, design and PR roles, which Lam says provide a talent pool suitable for most of BurgerFuel’s marketing purposes.
However, this relatively small number does present some limitations, and the burger company is open to working with freelancers and other agencies when it needs specific skills.
“When we launched the ‘Built Fresh’ campaign we did some work with Designworks,” says Lam. “They were the agitators and provocateurs on that. .99 has also done the odd thing for us. But again, a lot of it has come through Simeon Patience. He’s a great photographer that I worked with before he joined .99, and I wanted to continue working with him.”
BurgerFuel also works with Supply for web design and production company Camistry to produce its YouTube videos.
In addition, the brand works with boutique agencies located in the regions it expands into, because local nous makes a difference when it comes to execution in these instances.
The company currently has 82 stores located across six countries, and it is currently looking into opening stores in other locations, which will again necessitate partnerships with agencies in those regions.
But Lam says that working with the brand isn’t for everyone.
“People who work with us need to know that we’re pretty obsessive about our brand. In many ways, I would almost never wish BurgerFuel as a client onto anyone, because we probably are the worst client possible.”
And asked whether it wouldn’t perhaps be easier to strike a partnership with an agency, Lam jokes this might be the case.
“We could shut down everything we do. Drop all our culture. Drop all our marketing teams and just elect an agency. I could run it by myself. In fact, I could probably even fire myself, and they could just create an ad and pump it out on TV.”
The very specific reference to television is an important one, given that BurgerFuel made the decision a few years ago to discontinue its use of the channel.
“We don’t do TV, we don’t do radio, we don’t do print,” says Lam. “It was certainly a conscious move. I think it’s only been more recently that we officially ruled out TV completely. I think part comes down to following your customers. If their eyeballs are off TV, then you shouldn’t be there.”
From a pure advertising perspective, Lam says BurgerFuel spends between 80 to 95 percent of its budget on digital because it provides better cut-through against major international competitors.
“We talk about share of stomach. And if you’re not eating BurgerFuel, you’re eating a competitor. And I do know that the company that has the biggest share of stomach spends over a million dollars a month on TV alone. We’re up against that. We’re not even close to that on a yearly level. And that’s pure TV spend."
Because of its focus on digital advertising, BurgerFuel no longer works with an official media partner, instead purchasing ads directly through Google and Facebook.
“We don’t spend as much as everyone else, but [Facebook and Google] see what we’re trying to achieve,” says Lam. "Also, it's important to choose partners that challenge you and they always challenge us."
Despite being one of New Zealand’s more recognisable brands, BurgerFuel is still small compared to the likes of McDonald’s, KFC and Burger King.
While the Kiwi brand has a six percent share of the overall burger market, McDonald’s holds 40 percent, KFC sits on 23 percent and Burger King is further back on 19 percent.
But winning that share of the market doesn’t come cheaply, with each of these three international brands spending in excess of $20 million between October 2014 and September 2015 on advertising.
Comparatively, BurgerFuel spent only $208,000 during the same period (BurgerFuel also invests additional marketing budget on partnerships and sponsorships associated with car culture). And if anything, this serves as an indication of the fact that customers are drawn to the quality of the product the brand produces.
And while the company can’t compete with the likes of McDonald’s on price, the quality of its product provides a strong point of difference, which is often emphasised in its advertising.
Pushing the limits
“One of the fundamental things we talk about with our brand is that if everyone else is doing it, then we’re not; and if we’re doing it, others can’t,” says Lam.
He says this was recently reflected in a visually striking outdoor campaign that celebrated the freshness of all the ingredients used in burgers.
“We wanted it to look like artwork,” says Lam. “We didn’t want the generic waterfall of lettuce from the sky that you see in every food ad. We didn’t want to look like a Marie Claire magazine. It was a big challenge for us. And we wanted these big provocative lines, like ‘Real Breast implants’ and ‘High risk of addiction’. Some of those lines actually came from customers. We had one person say our aioli is so good it’s like crack. We didn’t feel we could do a cocaine poster, so we went for the spud cigarettes instead.”
Comparing chips to nicotine sticks isn’t the most conventional approach, and Lam admits the brand does have a tradition of a slightly more confronting approach to its advertising.
BurgerFuel has gone as far as putting Pablo Escobar on a poster alongside a promise of 330 grams of Coke, as well as taking a jab at Donald Rumsfeld after his resignation.
While harmlessly humorous in most instances, the brand has also provoked ire among some Kiwis.
On July 12 this year, a complaint against BurgerFuel’s billboard advertisement for its ‘Greedy Bastard’ burger was upheld in part by the Advertising Standards Authority (ASA). The complainant said:
"I'm sure this humour appeals to the young adults it is trying to lure into its restaurant, but to force the name upon people in large type in public is not acceptable.”
The ASA subsequently ordered for the billboard to be removed, and BurgerFuel’s comms team told StopPress that it did not intend to offend with the creative:
“As a brand we’re all about having a good time and we never deliberately try to rile up the public as a marketing exercise. Since Sir Ed ‘knocked the bastard off’, this phrase has become a normal term in New Zealand society. People have been eating the Bastard burger in NZ for 20 years so we certainly didn’t foresee that any offence would be caused. The Greedy Bastard was on the menu as a limited edition special version of the Bastard, and by the time we received the complaint the billboard was already down so no action was required by us.”
Lam concedes BurgerFuel’s advertising might not be palatable to everyone all the time, but he says the aim has always been to ensure that Kiwis of all ages engage with the brand.
“We don’t mind being polarising, but we like to be more inclusive than anything,” he says
“[BurgerFuel founder] Chris [Mason] often spoke about this idea of the customer and your mum. So it’s basically, if you asked your mum, ‘What’s a good place?’, you wouldn’t have built it for her, but she would like it anyway. We’ve never wanted to do anything that would stand in the way of someone getting a good burger.”
Music to customers’ ears
One way BurgerFuel ensures Kiwis get their hands on burgers when they want them is by constantly looking for ways to expedite the burger creation process. An on-site kitchen at the headquarters serves as a practice station, where chefs experiment with new recipes and work on how to produce burgers as quickly as possible.
Lam says that BurgerFuel also invests substantially in making the experience of being at one of its joints as sociable as possible.
“There’s always been the talk of creating the energy and atmosphere of a bar without the alcohol. If you could deliver that, you got something special.”
The brand has achieved this to some degree by launching Radio BurgerFuel, a bespoke station that transmits directly from the headquarters in Grey Lynn to all the BurgerFuel locations across the world.
“We’ve always been big on music,” says Lam. “When I first arrived at BurgerFuel, we’d literally buy about 30 or 40 CDs every month and send them to the stores. They would put them on the five-disc multi-changer, and then they’d send them all back and we’d rotate the CDs. Then, after that, one of my very early projects was taking that to iPods.”
BurgerFuel has employed DJ Lee Densem full-time to run the station, giving him creative freedom to run it the way he wants to.
“The mantra for Lee is for Radio BurgerFuel to become the world’s number one internet radio station,” says Lam. “When we built that, we wanted it to be that good.”
A bold objective. But, then again, who would’ve thought 20 years ago that the small burger joint next to Santos Café would eventually grow into a multi-national franchise.