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WhataBurger and McGarrah Jessee on boneless wings, humor and super-fandom

WhataBurger and McGarrah Jessee on boneless wings, humor and super-fandom
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In the latest edition of ‘Convene. Challenge. Change.’ – an editorial partnership between The Drum and the 4A’s – WhataBurger marketing comms VP Donna Tuttle and McGarrah Jessee CEO Britton Upham discuss the need to keep a brand’s marketing fresh, while simultaneously respecting its history.

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For older brands, it’s critical – and occasionally challenging – to be able to adapt marketing strategies to a continually evolving culture.

Whataburger is an illustrative example. Founded in 1950, the now-nationwide burger restaurant chain has begun to lean more heavily into humor. A recently released campaign from the brand depicts a disgruntled citizen stepping up to the podium at a city council meeting to protest WhataWings – which, being boneless, he says can not reasonably be called actual chicken wings.

Humor, says WhataBurger’s marketing communiations vice president Donna Tuttle, is WhataBurger’s way of providing what she views as some much-needed relief to a pandemic-weary American populace. “After Covid, it’s just been crazy,” she recently told 4A’s president Marla Kaplowitz. “People deserve a belly laugh. It’s the best medicine.”

The WhataWings campaign was developed in partnership with the brand’s partner agency, McGarrah Jessee, with it whom it first teamed up with about two decades ago. According to Britton Upham, the agency’s CEO, the video spot was born from the observation that people had been engaging in online debates about chicken wings, and especially whether bone-in wings or boneless wings are the superior variety.

“We weren’t trying to make the case that boneless wings are better than bone-in wings,” he said in the same conversation with Kaplowitz and Tuttle. “The point was, who cares? They taste great. It was just a platform for having fun.”

The campaign, according to Tuttle, has been hugely successful – in part because it struck a new and more playful note with the brand’s core audience. “People were delighted by it, and surprised,” she says, “and so sales have been tremendous.”

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But while the novelty of the style of messaging was a core component driving the campaign’s success, so too was the long-established recognition, shared between WhataBurger and McGarrah Jessee, of the burger brand’s loyal, core audience. “Having an agency like McGarrah Jesse by our side for 20 years, who respects and understands that, is huge,” she says. “It’d be really hard to explain 74 years of fandom to a new agency, and [for them] to get the tone just right. I think that Britton and his team hold that responsibility in their heart as much as we do.”

WhataBurger’s fans, according to Tuttle, “go to great lengths” to show their devotion to the brand. Couples have become engaged in its restaurants. Some customers have wrapped their babies in the brand’s taquito wrapping paper and posted pictures to social media. (Tuttle doesn’t endorse this latter practice, but nonetheless she points to it an example of extreme fandom.)

As the brand continues to expand – it recently opened it’s thousandth restaurant – Tuttle says that it will continue to strive, in partnership with McGarrah Jessee, to celebrate its core audience in new and engaging ways. And given the recent success of the WhataWings campaign, the brand intends to keep harnessing the power of humor.

Watch the full conversation in the video above.

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