A burger story

International marketing lessons from Japan

Exposure Group, Benjamin Feltham

Imagine: You go to Hungry Jack's and glance over the menu you've seen countless times. But today there's something different: A cheeseburger on a jet-black bun that may or may not evoke a foreboding sense of doom and evil. Called the "Kuro Burger" (meaning literally "black burger"), the item has been a staple in Burger King Japan for several years. 

Apparently, the marketing tactic was quite successful among the local audience. The company recently announced that it's not quite done playing around with the colour spectrum when it comes to burgers and buns. This time, it's seeing red. 

Here's the story behind a culinary decision to go very, very bold in Japan – as well as what we can learn from the burger chain's success for international marketing events and exhibitions. 

A campaign on fire? 

The Aka (Red) Samurai Burger doesn't just look smoking hot, it also packs a kick. The product has a spicy sauce, complementing the bright red bun and red cheese. Diners can choose either beef or chicken to sit between the pieces of bread that practically glow with their intense tomato-based colouring. 

When the company's small marketing department wanted a cheap advertising strategy, it decided to colour its buns with bamboo charcoal and ketchup with squid ink, drawing attention through social media and the simple fact that these burgers practically force you to take a second look. The hellishly black sandwiches have been so successful that other fast food chains and Burger King franchises in the Asia-Pacific region are following suit with their own versions of the dark burgers.

Now that we're into red, Burger King Japan is hoping it'll continue to keep its bottom line solidly in the black. As of July 2, Ad Age reported that a Google search turned up over 150 headlines (in English alone) commenting on the development. 

Why do bold colours work in Japan? 

Burger King Japan's general manager for business management, Masanori Tatsuiwa, told Ad Age that the drive to be creative and innovative comes in part from the company's limited resources for advertising. 

"At the moment we don't have much ad budget in our hands, so we do almost everything by ourselves," he said.

"We are not using any creative agencies for these products. And this way we don't need any big money to expand our awareness in the market." 

So why is the company stoking the flames with a shockingly vibrant red burger? Why go with such an intense, unnatural presentation?

With only five people on its marketing team – including research and development staff – the company needed to tap into the local market's culture and preferences to hit the bullseye with a low-budget ad campaign. By understanding that bold food presentation would evoke curiosity, the company generated momentum for what some taste-testers view as the main attraction: the spicy sauce.

While the sandwich may look unappealing to people from other countries, Ad Age noted that Japan is a "land of relentlessly wacky fast food innovations". In other words, the approach works because it caters to a base that deeply appreciates the unusual when it comes to eating.  

What do burgers have to do with trade shows?

Taking a page from Burger King's book, when you're thinking about participating in an event overseas, take some time to learn about the cultural nuances, language and consumer preferences of your target audience there. You might be surprised what a strong impact even a low-cost, simple change in your campaign can make in attracting visitors and attention. 

At the same time, if you're interested in entering a new market but not quite sure how to make your mark, attending an international exhibit in the area or one with attendees from the region could give you the insights you need to fuel your first campaign. 

As for Japan's fast food, we just can't wait to see what they come up with next. Blue burger, anyone?