Burger King, AOL Fire Up Marketing Deal

Burger King Corp., the second-largest fast-food player in the U.S., is looking to market itself through a new partnership with New York-based media giant AOL Time Warner.

Through a multi-year, multi-million dollar partnership, Burger King and AOL will launch a series of promotions designed to boost the Miami-based fast food retailer’s sales and brand awareness — efforts coming at a critical juncture for the company, which is losing market share to rivals McDonalds Corp. and Wendy’s.

One such promotion will entail giving away special access codes with customers’ orders. Consumers could then go to AOL’s Internet properties and burgerking.com, and enter in the codes to access “BK Backstage,” a custom site developed by AOL’s America Online and featuring exclusive content and contests associated with recording artists from AOL’s Warner Bros. labels. (Taco Bell used a similar effort during a recent promotion in conjunction with Microsoft Corp. for its Xbox game system.)

Burger King will also sponsor a sweepstakes and a special advertising section in Sports Illustrated magazine, published by AOL Time Warner’s Time Inc. unit. Through the promotion, the magazine’s readers and Burger King customers will be encouraged to submit their choices for the magazine’s “Whopper Sports Moment of the Month” advertising section at burgerking.com and AOL’s CNNSI.com. Submissions count as entries into a sweepstakes, awards for which might include trips to a favorite sports event, or a mention in a special Sports Illustrated issue.

Meanwhile, the companies will work to promote Burger King in conjunction with upcoming television programs and films, expanding the fast food retailer’s five-month-old sponsorship deal in conjunction with the release of AOL-owned New Line Productions’ “The Lord of the Rings” trilogy.

In addition, a promotion will specifically target potential Burger King employees by (for instance) handing out free concert tickets or offering special pricing on AOL Time Warner products and services to workers.

For AOL, the deal likely will see Burger King putting free America Online software in its restaurants. At least potentially, that could mean wide distribution for its America Online service — Burger King serves 12 million customers each day on average, through a network of about 11,000 restaurants. America Online already has about 31 million subscribers, and the service has proven extremely successful as a channel for cross-promoting other AOL Time Warner services — a fact that’s helped the company to weather advertising losses better than most online plays.

The deal also firmly establishes AOL as the latest media player to tap into the fast food industry to boost its brand — joining Walt Disney Corp. (through a longstanding agreement with McDonalds) and Microsoft (via its ongoing work with Taco Bell).

At the same time, AOL cited the agreement as more evidence of its proficiency in stringing together marketing deals across its disparate media divisions.

“Our AOL Time Warner Global Marketing Solutions group has worked closely with the Burger King Corporation global marketing team to create a truly integrated partnership, one that enables us to reach Burger King customers as well as their employees, franchisees and suppliers worldwide, with a wide range of values and opportunities,” said AOL co-chief operating officer Bob Pittman. “We believe this alliance demonstrates the kind of tailored cross-platform opportunities that only AOL Time Warner can design for its partners.”

The move comes just months into an effort by Burger King to turn its money-losing business around. Earlier this year, the company appointed former Northwest Airlines chief executive John Dasburg to its top post, saddling him with the job of improving business, cutting losses and most likely, parting ways with Burger King’s London-based parent, Diageo.

“At Burger King Corporation, we are looking to welcome back millions of customers to Burger King restaurants through new products, new partnerships, new strategies and a commitment to serve customers what they want and how they want it at a good value,” Dasburg said. “Partnering with a media powerhouse like AOL Time Warner will provide our customers a broad array of exciting, interactive and cutting-edge experiences. By combining our brand with AOL Time Warner’s top-drawer content and media distribution strengths, we will reach the widest audience in the online and offline worlds. This strategic alliance will bring more value to our customers than anyone in food service.”

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