Burger King Strategy Marketing

Burger King CMO on how it went from 'shitty' ads to using creativity to be competitive


By Stephen Lepitak, -

September 25, 2019 | 8 min read

Burger King’s chief marketing officer Fernando Machado has revealed how he uses creativity to give his campaigns a competitive edge over competitors like McDonald’s and Subway which have bigger budgets.

Speaking at Advertising Week New York, the former Unilever marketer was scathing of the work that came prior to his appointment in 2014, saying that he joined knowing that “we needed to change”.

He highlighted a campaign featuring Steve Tyler from Aerosmith (see below) and former England football captain David Beckham, saying that it made him "want to throw up in my mouth” before adding that it was “everything I hate about advertising.”

Machado described his company as “an amazing brand” that was producing “shitty” adverts featuring Jay Leno, Mary J Blige and other celebrities. In his view it was “fake advertising that has nothing to do with the brand.”

The reason for highlighting this work prior to his arrival was not to complain but to make the statement that “very generic” marketing was “very dangerous for a brand like Burger King,” adding that consumers probably wouldn’t even remember the products being promoted.

Burger King was the sixth-highest spender on media in the fast-food space in 2013, a long way behind McDonald’s which was top, with Subway, Wendy’s, KFC and Taco Bell also spending more in the US market.

Presenting a map of a corner of Los Angeles with numerous major branded fast food restaurants located all around it, he stated: “It’s a tough market and on every corner you have a taco truck or a hot dog stand,” adding that even though he is looking at fast food, he believes the same could be true of any other market.

“Everyone is screwed. Consumer goods is the same thing, with P&G, Unilever and Reckitt Benkiser. It’s really tough.”

When discussing budgets, he was adamant that whatever the spend, the work “needs to stand out,” but that the activity must also be inherently on-brand too. Machado said he looks for creativity that makes his team nervous.

“To be a success…people need to look at the stuff and say that only Burger King could have done that. It’s what makes me close that gap on the brands up there and it’s why we treat creativity as a competitive advantage," he said.

This led him to share four key moves that he believes are crucial to impact creativity.

Understand what your brand is about

"You cannot go and try to do some crazy stuff if you don’t even know what your brand is about. In our case, we have a brand that has been in the marketplace since 1954 and despite the fact that we were doing really shitty work, people still like the brand,” he said.

Machado was advised to wear the Burger King shirt when out in public, which he said changed how people spoke and treated him due to the affection they had for Burger King. “People treat me like they know me, it’s like an automatic connection.”

He explained that brand love is generated partially by how the brand talks to people through its ‘Have it your own way’ messaging, while the quality of the Whopper burger is an equally important element in standing out against competitors.

This brought him to the importance of the Burger King crown which Machado claimed is not just for children with more adults wearing them; “When adults put on the crown, it brings out the 12-year-old version of themselves…it’s a piece of paper but it’s an intangible asset that is much more valuable.”

Creating a great brief

Machado admitted to having written “shitty” briefs but believes that the ones that have been most successful were simple looking one-liners, which he said are more difficult to produce and take more time to research as the focus has to be correct before being issued.

Let the idea grow

“The more you try to put in, the fewer people are going to take out,” he advised. “You need to have a deeper understanding of what you are trying to accomplish. Let the idea grow."

He claimed that fans of Burger King were willing to get involved with it and to do funny things on its behalf and share with their friends that did it. “Every time we see an idea that we don’t know how to do – we like it. Every time. The fact that we don’t know how to do it… it’s most likely not to have been done before. And if it’s not been done before it’s probably going to work. But I have seen so many people on the client-side kill an idea because they don’t know how it will work.”

Talking about the need to protect the idea, which he compared to a baby lion as ‘fragile’ when born and “easy to kill”, Machado advised that an idea should be figured out, not just left because there is no understanding of how to make it happen.

“Don’t think because Burger King is doing a lot of cool stuff that is like kicking open a door – there is always a fight. You must always be willing to have lunch by yourself and put your career at risk sometimes to make shit happen because it was easy everyone would do it – and it’s not easy. You have to trust uncertainty and let the idea grow.”

The bigger risk is not taking any risk

“The most common question I get is ‘Aren’t you guys afraid sometimes?’ And every time someone asks that the person clearly doesn’t know us. We are not afraid sometimes, we are afraid every fucking time. If I’m not afraid I won’t do it. You need to be afraid of the idea, there needs to be uncertainty. We are not fearless enough. That’s not the trick – the trick is to do even though you are afraid. Every time we do something, the whole team is anxious every time. We even include someone on the team from legal. Legal is not there to approve or disapprove something, they are part of the team who are finding solutions with us.”

He addressed what happens when idea goes wrong by highlighting how news is now shared and how quickly social media forgets about a subject and moves on, with President Donald Trump being one catalyst for shifting the conversation away from issues each day at the moment.

“Generally, the 'talkability' of something lasts about 24-hours and then it starts to die down," he said.

As to how he feels when activity doesn’t receive the talkability he hoped for, he moves on. “It’s better to try and do something different because then you have the chance of doing something relevant and have people talk about it.”

One team

His final point was about the importance of internal collaboration, rather than having departments work in a ‘Game of Thrones’ manner with each department working against the other.

“In our case, we work very collaboratively and transparently every single time. I talk with every single market, all the regions. We have a Whatsapp group with 150 people from the marketing team talking all the time," he said. "Even sharing memes and something like that.”

The success of his approach is shows by the awards it's won since changing the creative direction and the business' sales in the face of a challenging market.

“Fast food is not a category that is exploding but in the past four years we have double-digit sales growth… it’s not just advertising or design, there is a lot of stuff that is not marketing but marketing is helping.”

Last week, Burger King announced that it was to stop selling plastic children’s toys in its meals in the UK as part of its sustainability initiatives.

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