How Burger King shook off 'lazy marketing' to show its personality


By Doug Zanger, Americas Editor

April 23, 2018 | 7 min read

Understanding the first interaction Burger King chief marketing officer Fernando Machado had with the brand could explain why the burger behemoth goes out of its way to make a splash.

“As a teenager [in Brazil], I saw the cool advertising that the brand did, like Subservient Chicken and Whopper Freakout from those years,” he said, referring to the buzzworthy work created by long-time agency Crispin Porter + Bogusky. “It’s so far back in time and at the same time, it’s still fresh and shows how far ahead of time Crispin was back then.”

Keeping the work fresh and noteworthy – and making sure it seeps into popular culture – is one of Machado’s missions. Machado, who came to the brand from Unilever four years ago, saw opportunity, but also a brand that was perhaps trying to be something it truly wasn’t and veering away from what made it special in the first place.

Speaking at the Worldwide Partners Inc. (WPI) conference in Miami, he shared some of the work in between the Crispin glory days and today. One spot, inexplicably featuring singer Steven Tyler, was particularly galling.

“How did [the brand] go from Subservient Chicken and Whopper Freakout to this?” he asked. “It’s lazy marketing.”

Buzz is earned (media)

Ascending to his current role six months ago, Machado was no stranger to taking a brand from merely a product to the rare air of cultural relevance. His leadership with Dove’s ‘Real Beauty Sketches,’ launched in 2013, is still hailed as a masterful achievement from his 18 years at Unilever, his last role as global vice president of global brand development.

That campaign, which drafted off of the brand’s original ‘Campaign for Real Beauty,’ substantially cut through, with the original video gathering over 163 million views globally in 2013. It was also an awards darling, with the campaign collecting a Titanium Grand Prix at Cannes.

But it was the earned media that caught the eye with 4.6 billion PR and blogger impressions. This is particularly interesting because in Machado’s eyes, the real way to break through, especially in the cutthroat world of quick-serve restaurants (QSR), is to make it big and make it count.

“Anything that’s below two billion impressions is a bit of noise,” he said, also noting that Burger King’s US media spend was sixth, below McDonald’s, Subway, Taco Bell, KFC and Wendy’s.

Being part of the issues — and community

For Machado, making an impact isn’t about merely going out and doing things that don’t make sense for the brand. Four years ago, upon his arrival, he found that Burger King - which was founded in Florida in 1954 - was still loved, but that love was eroding. There was an advantage to having loyalty even if the brand wasn’t creating great work, but Machado saw that it was time to dig in.

“The first task was to understand why people like the brand to start with,” he said. “We went back to the roots of the brand – the crown, ‘Have it your way,’ The Whopper, the messiness of The Whopper, flame-grilling – they all bubble up.”

After that initial exercise, it was up to working on capturing the essence in “a modern way.” What emerged was a sense of community and togetherness that the brand felt was important to capture.

“We are a brand that welcomes everyone,” noted Machado. “And we gravitated to a territory around welcoming everyone and respecting the individual.”

In addition, Machado and Burger King took the idea of respect even further, weighing in on societal topics their customers could participate in, including a campaign that supported San Francisco’s annual Pride celebration. Sold at one store in the heart of the parade route, the brand’s Whopper sandwich was wrapped in a rainbow colored wrapper with 'We are all the same inside' inscribed on it. Additionally, the brand passed out 50,000 rainbow crowns. The crowning moment (no pun intended) was the customer reaction, captured through video.

Another program helped one of their fiercest competitors, McDonald’s, for a noble cause in Argentina last year. A Day Without Whopper drove loyal customers to the competitor to help support its McHappy Day, a campaign to assist children with cancer. All 107 Burger King stores participated and, though customers were shocked, they saw that purchasing a Big Mac on that day could be for the greater good.

“We love the fact that asking people to buy from our competitors is the kind of thing that Burger King can do, that could never happen the other way around,” Ignacio Ferioli, vice president and executive creative director of the brand’s agency David in Buenos Aires told The Drum.

“It is simply a matter of brand personality. We have a client that’s willing to take risks even if it means losing some profit in the process.”

Risk is the reward

The boldness that Burger King exhibits comes from a confidence in the process and one that affords a great deal of flexibility.

“We have freedom within a framework,” said Machado. “The best way to empower people and get a good result is by investing on building the team and the talent. A framework's not replacement for having a good relationship and working together as a team and having good talent in each country.”

That freedom led to two campaigns that garnered significant press, well above the 2 billion impression threshold that Machado and the brand demands.

The first, Whopper Neutrality, had the brand weigh in on the contentious Net Neutrality debate, explaining the issue through prioritizing people who are willing to pay more for the burger. Predictably, reaction from customers were equally hilarious and uncomfortable, but an effective technique to educate, resulting in around 10 billion impressions.

Another was Google Home of the Whopper, a 15-second TV ad that activated Google Home technology to explain the ingredients of the sandwich. The invasive technique sent people with the device or an Android phone to its Wikipedia entry. Hip to the trick, it was reported that Google Home blocked the query, but it resulted in earned impression gold. This campaign snagged two billion impressions in two hours, ending up netting more than 14 billion at the end of the first wave to the campaign.

The gamble of these two approaches paid off, though Machado concedes that going more niche “doesn’t take off sometimes.” Even when the bold approach doesn’t necessarily yield the intended impact, Machado doesn’t write it off as failure, nor does he see much in the way of material, negative results.

“Even when it goes wrong, it doesn't really damage the brand,” he said. “Doing an above the line or social media type of activation – when it goes wrong for us it means that it didn't get as talked about as we were hoping for. But it doesn't mean the brand actively is to decline or sales will decline. We are okay with something that ends up not being as big as we were hoping for because that is the cost of doing business for us.“


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Burger King

Burger King is an American global chain of hamburger fast food restaurants. Headquartered in the unincorporated area of Miami-Dade County, Florida, the company was...

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Worldwide Partners Inc.

Worldwide Partners, Inc. (WPI) is one of the world’s largest networks of independent advertising and marketing communications agencies, comprised of over 70 independent...

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