Burger King is a relative newcomer to the Russian fast food market. While other fast food giants opened stores in 1990s, the first Burger King in Russia opened in Moscow only in January, 2010. However, as of 2019, the last time that official information was released, the franchise in Russia was already valued at around 70 million USD, with 550 restaurants and growing not just in the major cities but also farther east into smaller towns. Perhaps most shockingly for its competitors, it was already growing into Siberia, which is seen as a largely untapped market by popular fast-food chains.
As Russian paychecks have largely stagnated since the 2018 global crisis, fast food has become the fastest-growing part of the catering market due to its accessibility and affordability. The BK franchise is riding this momentum and has created an unusual blueprint on how to draw in Russian consumers by using an apparently deep knowledge of the modern Russian language and maintaining its menu in a way that reflects what Russians expect from a foreign brand in Russia.
Burger King Russia’s Dirty Joke Marketing
BK’s entry into the Russian market began when Burger King Europe partnered with Burger Rus LLC. Burger Rus’s managing shareholder, Alexander Kolobov, is best known as the founder of Shokolodnitsa, Russia’s most popular domestic coffee shop chain. He also founded the well-known sushi chain Vabi Sabi.
Despite the conservative atmosphere found in his other restaurants, Kolobov decided to take his first burger franchise in a completely different direction.
In Russia, Burger King’s marketing strategy sets it apart from other Russian food brands with over-the-top explicit wordplays. For instance, in 2016 they marketed a Two Big King Burger Special with the Russian catch phrase “на какое-то наедалово.” It translates roughly to “sounds like a lot of food,” but when pronounced sounds almost identical to a rude Russian phrase that means roughly “that’s gotta be bull sh**;” it’s more like more like something you would find in a bathroom stall than a billboard.
This tongue and cheek formula appears to be the template for most of Burger King Russia’s new food offers as hardly an advertisement exists without some sort of base innuendo. One might think that shock value earned from sexualized and crude humor might be a bad way to advertise food, especially in an increasingly conservative Russia. However, it has only made BK stand out amongst competitors.
This also makes BK Russia stand out from many other BK country locations. For instance, the company tested similar crass jokes in New Zealand and England only to receive major backlash. In Russia, the chain has received some negative reaction from conservative groups, however, it has also largely skirted official decency laws well enough that most (but not all) of its ads have been allowed to continue even after cases were filed against them.
This controversy has also not kept the franchisee from maintaining a flagship shareholding investiture from Russian state-owned VTB bank. Also interesting is that Ginza Project, a hip, upscale Russian chain, has also signed on as a sub-franchisee to further boost the chain’s numbers.
Online, Burger King advertisements and promotions go even further, as those are not as closely watched as other media ads. For example, in the below 2018 jab at KFC and McDonalds, Burger King doesn’t miss the opportunity for a joke stating that its chicken is superior because they have larger “яйца” which translates to “eggs,” but which is also the commonly-used Russian slang for “testicles.”
The ad features a high ranking BK Russia official and also features quite graphic imagery at the end.
One ad campaign that did backfire for BK Russia was released for the Russia-hosted 2018 World Cup. BK’s heart seemed to be in the right place, responding to xenophobic and racist comments heard from some Russian officials. These officials implied that they would prefer to prevent a wave of mixed-raced children being born after the games. This had famously happened after the 1980 Moscow Olympics, for instance, and the children born afterwards are still commonly called “children of the Olympics” (дети олимпиады).
Apparently rebelling against this thought, BK Russia offered a cash reward and lifetime supply of Whoppers to any Russian woman who could prove that she had become impregnated by a professional football player during the World Cup. The campaign obviously missed the mark and resulted in condemnation from not only the Russian authorities, but also Burger King US headquarters. Burger King Russia issued an official apology.
It should also be noted that not all of BK Russia’s marketing relies on controversy. For instance, also for the World Cup, BK launched a separate “Test for Fatherhood” (Тест на отцовство) campaign that encouraged fathers to spend more time with their children. This was done in response to a poll that showed that more than two-thirds of Russian men could more easily name members of the Russian soccer team than their child’s hobby and typically spent less than 60 minutes a week with their children. For this campaign, BK only produced a YouTube video and promoted a hashtag, however.
“Local” Menu Items at Burger King Russia
Of course, success often comes not just from effective marketing, but also by maintaining popular menu items.
International fast food chains in many countries often localize, sometimes heavily and successfully. For instance, Burger King Japan has found corn, spam, and avocado to be successful ingredients in local offerings. They’ve also offered Teriyaki Burgers, appealing to local traditions.
However, most of the offerings at BK Russia, if they are not available in the US, are generally menu items taken from elsewhere in Europe. In fact, most foreign fast food chains in Russia offer little, if anything, that generally strives to appear local.
McDonald’s has attempted some localization. For instance, its Burger ala Rus is a seasonal offering. It sports a rye bun and horseradish sauce, both connected to traditional Russian tastes. McDonald’s also once attempted to produce a Herring under a Fur Coat Roll, placing a traditional Russian salad into a McDonald’s wrap. It failed (spectacularly) in its trial period.
Most other chains – KFC, Subway, and Burger King, for instance, have done almost no localization. Russians tend to enjoy foreign brands as foreign brands, preferring to see them as something more exotic than local, and often seeing foreign brands being higher quality than local brands.
That said, let’s look at some of things an American might be surprised to find on the menu at BK Russia:
Cheddar King: Advertised for its overabundance of cheese, the Cheddar King was part of an August 2021 “Cheddar Menu” Rollout in Russia. The same burger has been formerly featured on menus in Europe. Different BK locations offer different variations of the burger, but at its core it offers a cheese bun, beef cutlets, caramelized onions, salad topping, and of course, cheddar.
Burger Parmegiano: With parmesan cheese, flavored mayonnaise, and arugula on a sautéed bun, Burger King’s unexpected success selling Italian Themed American originated burgers in Russia is a testament to how global the franchise’s reach has become. This burger has also been featured in Europe and, briefly, in the US.
Shrimp: Are a popular part of the BK lineup. They come as a side (similar to a nugget), in wraps, an in burgers – sometimes on their own and sometimes with a beef patty too. See above for the “vsem krevet!” ad campaign. BK shrimp apparently originated in Korea.
Chocolate Raspberry Cheesecake Pie: A crusty outer chocolate layer with cream cheese and raspberry sauce at its core, this is like a something like a fried cannoli. One of the more unusual menu items that can’t be found in Europe or the USA, this Item is a must try for any tourist stopping by Burger King on a visit to Russia. This apparently also originated in Korea.
Tuborg Beer: Burgers and beer is a popular tradition just about anywhere. Burger King Russia makes it possible even at the fast-food level. This Danish malt brewed lager sells at the chain for about $2.50, meaning that BK in Moscow is actually used as a quick pub option at times. Beer as a feature on fast food menus has been tried by around Europe and BK sees Moscow a fit testing ground for offering it in Russia.
The Future of Burger King in Russia
The controversial marketing tactics of Burger King that are specific to Russia may be due to its need to stand out amongst its well-established fast-food competitors. Only a handful of major Western fast-food chains have been able to penetrate the Russian market but most who have been successful have been in Russia for far longer. KFC, McDonald’s, Subway, and Dunkin Donuts, for instance have all been building local brand awareness since the 1990s or before. Burger King naturally attacks McDonald’s as its most similar competitor as they both compete to sell fast food burgers in a country in which burgers are not historically a staple of the diet.
Burger King proudly claims that they’ve now accomplished in a short time what took McDonald’s decades to build. And it is a strong competitor now. An announcement from BK that it would more rapidly push into Siberia led McDonald’s to hasten its famously slow-and-steady approach to expansion. Burger King claims 5.8% of the Russian fast food market share, placing it in third place behind McDonald’s and KFC.
Despite some cultural backlash, occasional chidings from the Russian authorities, and one-time scolding from the US headquarters, BK Russia’s marketing strategy is proving to be extremely successful and may inspire copycat marketing campaigns from future franchises seeking to enter Russian markets. Considering how fast the chain has grown, it will be interesting to see if the shock value begins to lose its novelty or if the strategy leads to Burger King’s overtaking still more of its competitors.