Caught in between the hamburger war
In the early ’80s, I had the exciting task to lead the fight for Jollibee against McDonald’s in the early stages of fast-food advertising war.
McDonald’s, wearing the halo of success in America and around the world, looked awesome. It established its first store in 1981 in Morayta, followed by the one in Cubao, Greenhills and Makati. Just like Coca-Cola, Hershey’s, John Wayne and Elizabeth Taylor, things American took Manila by storm.
In 1982, we were a small start-up Filipino-owned agency named Basic when Jollibee assigned its advertising functions to us. Bobby Sumulong, Jollibee’s marketing head, didn’t believe in account pitches. He simply looked at our credentials. He knew that our group—myself, the late Tony Mercado, Nonoy Gallardo and Telly Bernardo—did some outstanding works for Tide, Safeguard, Camay for P&G, and of late for Benadryl and Chiclets for Warner Lambert.
The moment I started munching on Jollibee and McDonald’s hamburgers in a taste comparison test, I spotted the difference immediately. It was the smell, the appetizing aroma of newly cooked patty. The moment you bit into Jollibee, the nose knew. The aroma of condiments mixed into ground beef hot off the griddle was simply mouth-watering. McDonald’s didn’t have the same taste impact on the native palate. I sensed a cuisine culture clash— Filipino taste versus American taste. I coined two Tagalog words to portray Jollibee’s superior taste: Langhap-sarap, and to pinpoint its American competitor, I added a sub-head: Hindi bland. The advertising was a huge success. Langhap-sarap was on everybody’s mind and on everybody’s mouth.
Tony Tan Caktiong, the young and bullish entrepreneur, instantly grasped the power of advertising to fast track Jollibee’s growth. He threw his early revenues behind big-budget advertising.
Within a year and much to our surprise, Jollibee advertising created a big unmet consumer demand in the provinces. When it expanded in the capital cities of the provinces, long lines of people trooped to Jollibee. Provincial stores were doing P1-million blockbuster sales per week.
To establish ownership of the Filipino family we dimensionalized langhap-sarap in the context of Filipino family values. We conceptualized and produced TV advertising with kurot sa puso slice-of-life commercials laced with authentic endearment relationship between the brand Jollibee and mainstream Filipino families. Jollibee became unstoppable, posting double-digit growth every year. So confident was Jollibee about its future that it implemented a two-to-one preemptive growth strategy versus McDonald’s.
Up for bid
Then, wham! Tragic news was conveyed to us. The newly hired marketing head recruited from a pharmaceutical company decided to put the Jollibee account up for bid. The roof fell on Basic. We were all shell-shocked by the news. I saw this bid as a devaluation of our creativity. Most of all, the bid symbolized the withdrawal of trust in our client-agency relationship.
We moped for days. Finally, my partner, Tony Mercado, and I regained our hubris. We decided not to join the bid. Nanaig sa amin ang malaking tampo. Di bale nang magdildil ng asin, huwag lang tanggalan ng tiwala!
Then, whoa! The next morning after we lost Jollibee, George Yang of McDonald’s was on my phone. He was giving Basic the McDonald’s account on a silver platter. Oh boy! Was I flabbergasted! The quick turnaround of fortune was simply unbelievable. I recovered my bearing. Remembering the rule of thumb in shifting loyalties in the advertising business, I said yes, gladly, to George. But first, out of delicadeza, I must observe a one-year quarantine period to desensitize Basic from our familiarity with Jollibee plans. George understood.
True enough, one year after, George was on the phone to give Basic the McDonald’s account. I accepted whole-heartedly, with deep gratitude to my former competitor.
Question of image
McDonald’s advertising issue then was a question of image. It was doing excellent consumer off-take in middle class and business locations, but lacked associative appeal among the masa and provincial people. To illustrate, McDonald’s Bacolod branch was doing good business due to the classy orientation of the big middle-class Bacolod crowd. However, research showed that in Batangas, many of the masa customers did not feel at home in the American milieu of McDonald’s store and the English idioms of the front service crew. While its past advertising got memorable recall it did not establish people affinity with the masa.
To address the issue we decided to use the Sharon Cuneta strategy, to give the brand a masa dimension coupled with a taste reassurance message; Ulitin ang sarap, ang sarap ulitin.
Sharon was strategic. She had millions of masa fans and her separation from Gabby Concepcion was the object of mass sympathy, with the magnitude of a soap opera tear-jerker. The collective emotions and Sharon’s huge masa following would rub off on all McDonald’s stores within the masa market vicinity.
It worked! Associative recall and improved sales figures were attributed to the Sharon strategy.
George recruited me to join their marketing and product development sessions. I also attended the global convention of McDonald’s franchise holders and managers in New Orleans in 1994. McDonald’s global reach and systems -wide expertise in the fast food business were simply awesome.
In 1996, I got a call from Nankee Hiranand, a Jollibee pioneer franchise holder. He invited me to lunch only to tempt me with an unexpected proposition. “Will I be willing to take back Jollibee to Basic, our agency?” Wow!
According to Nankee, many Jollibee franchise owners were “missing a lot” the genre of Filipino value advertising, which had become memorable and relevant to Jollibee’s mass consumer dominance.
I asked Nankee who sent him and he answered, no one. He was on his own. “I’ll think it over,” I told Nankee.
There was only one predominant thought that could sway me to change loyalties: The fact of global alignment of advertising assignment. I was very insecure in handling international brands with Madison Avenue (US) tie-ups. Basic was a local agency. We had been fired by Warner Lambert despite our outstanding work for Chiclets and Benadryl because the US main office decreed that the account must be handled by their global agency, J. Walter Thompson. I was mortally afraid that one day, I’d lose McDonald’s through global alignment. My long-term prospect with Jollibee looked more viable and I was sure Jollibee realized the risk of changing agencies on a whim of a newly hired division head.
With a heavy heart we resigned from McDonald’s to work with Jollibee again. I felt the pangs of “walang utang na loob” when I talked to George Yang. He saved my career when I was down and out. I felt like a heel, a goat, an ingrate. George, the hard-boiled businessman that he was, understood. His last words: Let’s go on with our lives.
Right away, Jollibee gave us a big chunk of its thematic advertising. We also got back the Chowking assignment. Months later, Tony Tan called me to hand over the Greenwich advertising assignment.
On hindsight, I realized how cultural our behavior was in handling our emotional and mental crisis when it came to changing business loyalties.
“Malaking tampo” was our main sentiment when we refused to participate in the Jollibee bid.
“Walang utang na loob” was how I felt when I told George Yang of McDonald’s of my decision to return to Jollibee.
But just between me and you, dear readers, to fight for both sides in the hamburger war was a lot of fun.
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