Subservient Chicken and the Secret to Relaunching Popular Campaigns

Just when you thought viral video had flown the coop, Subservient Chicken is back.

We all remember Burger King’s 2004 foray in viral marketing: a dim room, a grainy image, and a guy in a chicken suit responding to the consumer’s every typed command. The effort was launched to emphasize the restaurant chain’s “Have It Your Way” tagline. Whatever you wanted of that chicken on the screen (or on the bun), it was up to the task.

Almost exactly a decade later, Burger King is bringing this digital marketing concept back. The brand has relaunched with the intention of promoting a new chicken sandwich, but this time, things were a little different. Visitors to the site were greeted with a Missing Chicken Error message. The campaign’s star, it seems, was on the loose.


Initially, the campaign relied on stealth: a #FindTheChicken hashtag that consumers were encouraged to share on Facebook, Twitter, and Google+; a photo gallery; and a series of newspaper ads that didn’t mention Burger King at all comprised the campaign’s preliminary phase. Then yesterday Burger King posted a video of Subservient Chicken’s life and reincarnation as Chicken Big King. The branded content piece was no doubt designed to resonate with the millions of consumers who followed the chicken’s activity the first time around, while also pulling in new potential fans.

It isn’t uncommon for brands to revisit popular campaign themes. Some ads are released as a series from the start in the style of the famed ’90s Taster’s Choice serial drama on TV. Others prove to be so well liked that they incite marketers to extend the idea beyond what might have been intended. Earlier this month Oddcast – maker of the OfficeMax-branded ElfYourself social e-cards – reported a record-breaking 2013 holiday. After seven seasons of bringing the campaign back, ElfYourself topped 200 million e-cards, reached 80 million unique users, and “generated revenue in the seven figures,” in part, Oddcast says, by becoming available on the Web, iOS, and Android for the first time.

Last year, the “What Happens Here, Stays Here” campaign promoting Las Vegas, which launched what’s arguably one of the most high-profile and culturally fixed mantras of all time, relaunched after a year’s hiatus. The Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority, the organization behind the campaign, and its agency R&R partners introduced the concept on TV in 2003. Now it has expanded to include a thematic outgrowth called “The Vegas Enabler,” along with a microsite and personalized online quiz that incorporates the names of the user’s Facebook friends.


These three campaigns have something in common beyond their propensity to go viral. The newest iteration of their famous themes is much broader in scope. In the case of Subservient Chicken, what started as an online video has grown to envelope social media; the brand posted a photo of the chicken on Twitter with a #TBT (Throwback Thursday) hashtag. A commercial, like that from the Las Vegas campaign, has branched out to incorporate a quiz, a far more interactive and personal form of media than a traditional TV spot. Whether the gap in their campaigns spanned 10 years or 10 months, these brands didn’t simply rehash their original model, but reimagined it for a new breed of consumer demonstrating new digital preferences and behaviors. Staying current is important for brands regardless of the nature of their messaging, but nowhere is it more critical than in the distribution of a relaunched campaign at risk of appearing old hat.

If you think back to the repeat campaigns you’ve seen, you’ll find it isn’t the idea that’s outmoded, but the delivery. Today’s offerings don’t exist in a vacuum: they’re multi-tentacled things that reach YouTube, Twitter, Facebook, mobile devices, and everywhere else their target consumer could be. The placement of their different components is what keeps them accessible and fresh.

Creating a campaign that goes viral is akin catching lightning in a bottle, but it can be done a second time around if the brand behind it recognizes the value of a diverse digital distribution strategy…and as long as its star continues to entertain its fans. Chicken Big King can attest to that.

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