Steve Whiteside spoke to Fernando Machado, CMO, Burger King as part of WARC’s Learn from the best report.

Fernando Machado describes Burger King’s brand using words like “daring”, “democratic”, “fun” and “self-deprecating”

The quick-service restaurant chain’s marketing has embodied these qualities with a broad range of campaigns that have driven conversations and, on occasion, controversy. Examples include Moldy Whopper, Burning Stores, Whopper Detour and Google Home of the Whopper.

Many marketers envy the chaotic spirit that seemingly underpins these campaigns, while other industry-watchers criticize Burger King for relying on gimmicks – or what marketing consultant Mark Ritson dubbed “stunts” and “flashy, ineffective fare”.

But Machado, Burger King’s chief marketing officer, repudiated this argument – and, in the process, offered guidance to CMOs wanting to embrace more courageous marketing. When people dismiss some of what Burger King does as a stunt, “I honestly don’t see it that way”, he said.

“I see an idea that’s so powerful that it makes people talk about it. If people talk about something today, they move on to talking about something else tomorrow. That’s how pop culture works. It’s not just in advertising; with any news, people just move on.

“And, then, I think the onus is on us … to continue to bring and create those moments, so that the brand is continuously part of the conversation.”

Propelling Burger King into the zeitgeist is not an end in itself. Instead, the conversations prompted by its campaigns must be “aligned with our strategic priorities”. Its marketing initiatives – however unconventional – will guide “the brand in the right direction” over time.

As a demonstration, Machado cited Whopper Detour – a campaign that took a year to produce because it was so complex. It was unusual in that it was pitched by an agency outside the brand’s usual roster, but ended up being “the most-awarded campaign that we had in the past year”, yielding billions of impressions, as well as 1.5 million app downloads.

“It was completely aligned with one of our strategic objectives, which is to strengthen the brand when it comes to tech and when it comes to digital,” Machado said.

“As long as what you’re doing is aligned to one of your strategic priorities, it should work.”

Balancing the day-to-day short-term activations with exceptional, higher-level strategic initiatives

Burger King’s splashy campaigns generate significant chatter, but traditional activities – like TV spots centred around promotions – also play an integral role.

“We have the day-to-day work, which has deadlines, which has a ton of market research, which correlates to short-term sales. And we layer on top of that work that is brand building, that’s industry-changing, that gets talked about,” Machado said.

Looking at the short-term piece, “Sometimes, it’s very promotional, because that’s how the category is: If I don’t have a promotion, my competitors will have, and I will suffer,” he said.

Campaigns like Google Home of the Whopper and Whopper Detour then go “above and beyond” as higher-level strategic initiatives. The aim may be to increase brand preference, boost affinity with target demographics, or enhance perceptions of food quality – each of which is a long-term aim, but does not inevitably translate into an instant spike in demand.

Moldy Whopper is one example: “The objective of the campaign was not to sell more tomorrow,” Machado said. “It was to start taking people on a journey, showing them that the food that we serve is actually better than people think, because it doesn’t have any artificial preservatives.”

The culture at Burger King requires its marketers and agency partners to be “all-in”

Burger King’s marketers – and agency partners like DAVID, FCB and MullenLowe – have a deep “love” of advertising, Machado asserted.

“People say, ‘We’d love to have you as a client.’ You don’t know what you’re talking about. Because we are all in, all the time. So, it’s very intense. But our creative partners are like that. The ones that do the best work: they are all in, all the time.”

Being “all in” requires a full immersion in the industry, from engaging in debates to gaining familiarity with the strongest work – such as that honored at the big award shows – to “develop your palate” and their own “criteria” for campaigns.

“What I mean by ‘criteria’ is you know what’s new and what’s not so new; you know what’s cliché and what’s not cliché; you know what is award-winning and what is not award-winning; you have an instinct for what people are going to be talking about and what they are not,” Machado said.

Machado also ensures the shops on Burger King’s roster operate under conditions that enable sustained creativity

“We never pitch briefs,” he stated. “We go to very specific agencies for certain briefs and we have some briefs that are open briefs that our key creative partners can come and present to us. And they know it’s not a competition.”

His rationale is simple. “If we are presented with two great ideas, we will do both. And if we are presented ten great ideas, I will do ten of them ... We nurture those relationships. And that’s why we don’t pitch stuff.”

One vital member of that list is 3G Capital, the private-equity group that owns Restaurant Brands International, the parent company of Burger King. Strong sales undoubtedly help, as hard revenues evidence the tangible return on investment in marketing – and build a degree of expectation regarding the cut-through of communications.

The franchise-holders who run Burger King’s restaurants are another necessary cohort to engage. “If I’m talking to franchisees, I need to be very rational, show the data, and even when you do that, they will not always agree,” Machado said.

Disagreements, he added, don’t “happen that often to be honest with you, because I think that they also understand the brand, and the level of collaboration that we have with our franchisee partners is very high.”

As a case in point, Moldy Whopper was primarily developed by a Swedish agency called Ingo, and it was “a franchisee partner from Sweden that brought the idea to the table,” Machado said. “So, they are also fairly ambitious creatively.”

The Moldy Whopper campaign delivered an outcome that a prior ad had not achieved, despite testing well. Whichever audience Machado addresses, he reiterates that impactful work only results if aims and creativity are matched.

“I think it’s very important that you align what the strategic objectives are. You align on what the brand is about. And, whatever you do needs to connect to these two things,” he said.

The overall result: year-on-year system-wide sales growth hit 9.3% in 2019, following on from lifts of 8.9% in 2018 and 10.1% in 2017.