Burger King's CMO reveals the formula for the brand's success and why they're sticking with the agency model when competitors aren't

  • Burger King has a legacy of pulling off fun marketing campaigns, says global chief marketing officer Fernando Machado, and people have come to expect that from the brand.
  • In an interview with Business Insider’s Tanya Dua, Machado said that Burger King isn’t afraid to push creative boundaries and doesn’t shy away from ideas that may be a bit risky or out there.
  • He also said that while other brands have started doing more advertising work in-house, the agency model still works well for Burger King.
  • Machado added that Burger King’s focus is not just on its products, but also playing on a bigger emotional space around issues that matter to people, like bullying or LGBTQ rights.
  • Check out Business Insider’s full list of the the 25 most innovative CMOs in the world in 2018.

Following is a transcript of the video, which has been edited for clarity.

Tanya Dua:So, you guys are known for your, you know, effervescent sense of humour on social media, always having fun, sometimes self-deprecating humour. How do you do it? How do you keep on top of trends, and run limited-time offers at the same time, and do amazing, funny campaigns?

Fernando Machado:I think that that’s what people expect from Burger King. Burger King is in an industry that’s kind of like a fun industry. I mean, you go to fast food, you smile, it’s a fun location, and Burger King tries to be one of the – if not the most fun brand – then on the fun brand pack within the fast food QSR industry. We have a legacy that we carry with us. Burger King through history has done some really cool things like Whopper Freakout, Subservient Chicken, Whopper Virgins, Whopper Sacrifice.

I could go on and on talking about the awesome things that have been done in the past, and that what we’re trying to do now is basically continue building on the legacy of the brand. You know, like so, even when we are doing like an LTO, a limited-time offer, or a promotion, people expect the brand should talk with a certain tone of voice that’s fun, engaging, sometimes self-deprecating. You cannot get wrong with self-deprecation by the way. And that’s what we try to do.

Dua:So, oftentimes that can end up backfiring though. So how do you prevent that from happening? It’s all fun and games on social, until you take one wrong step.

Machado:Yeah, I think that we have people working on the marketing team in our agencies who understand really well the positioning of the brand and the vitals and personality of the brand, and they have good criteria. Honestly, we didn’t have cases of backfiring to the point that truly affected the brand. For us so far, when something doesn’t work, it’s not like it went negative, it’s more like it didn’t work. So people didn’t talk as much as we thought they would.We didn’t get as much on media as we thought we would.

We try to be respectful, we try to not get divisive, we try to not come across as bullying, you know, like not bashing competition. Even when we do something funny with a competitor, or we challenge Google or whoever, we do it in a way that has wit, that it’s fun, and it’s a bit silly, and I think that people are more open to the things we do because of that.

Dua:OK, so another thing I wanted to really ask about is how do you inculcate this creativity in your team internally? You have this legacy to, as you said, carry on. People would run out of ideas I would assume at this point. How do you keep that culture of creativity alive?

Machado:It’s funny, because I think that we have, today, we are like spoiled for choice. We have more, probably more ideas than we can deploy. I think we have as I said a very strong and talented group of people that work for the brand, and when I say that work for the brand, I’m not just talking about the marketing team, I’m talking about the marketing team and our key agency partners.

They really get the brand, we share a very high creative ambition, and because they know the brand and they know that we have a high creative ambition, and we know that we are the type of client that really does things. So if they present an idea that’s a bit out there but it fits with the brand positioning and objectives we have, we are going to go and do it even if we have to pick some fights internally and push it through. We are doers, right?

And I think that the thing that probably frustrates the most a creative team is when they have a great idea that doesn’t get executed. So because they know that we execute good ideas and we are willing to pick up the fight to make it happen, they end up flocking, like we attract those people and the type of agencies that have the same high creative ambition.

Dua:So you talked about doers and having doers in your ranks. Is there any internal program that rewards these doers? Anything you can tell us about how you encourage that creativity?

Machado:Yeah, I think it’s a little bit part of the culture that we have, on the companies that are owned by 3G Capital. RBI, Restaurant Brands International, is a company from part of the 3G Capital group, and the type of people that we attract are people who have our owners’ mindset. We are looking for people who want to come and be partners for the long-term. We even say sometimes, well we don’t want people to come here and have a career. You don’t have a career, you are an owner of the business, and we remunerate accordingly. So, usually the valuable pay is much higher than the base pay.

Usually our teams are really small, so you are really accountable for the chunk of the business that you are responsible for. We tend to give much more responsibility to people at the early stages, even when the person doesn’t have experience. So, I think that all those things, when combined, create this ownership mindset which is present on the people who are successful at Burger King.

Dua:So, in terms of measuring success, you’ve often paid more importance to earned media. You’d run a print campaign like McWhopper – and that ends up going viral. So, how do you execute on something like that?

Machado:I think we have on our media mix, we have a combination of things. We do have traditional media. We do have a large chunk of our investment that goes behind GRPs on TV. I know that if we don’t advertise, if we don’t promote price points and products, it will affect my short-term sales. But that kind of like keeps the machine running. You know what I mean? That’s kind of like the bread and butter of what we do.

And then on top of that, we try to overlay activities that are almost like a mix of sometimes a bit of traditional media, it really depends on the idea, but definitely social media and PR to really boost the idea and have the world talking about those things. McWhopper is an example of that. McWhopper was triggered by a one-page newspaper ad but it was just one execution. You know, like that was just a spark so that the idea could fly in social media and PR.

We love those ideas, and I think that the combination of the two things, kind of like the bread and butter the more traditional, more like sales-driven activities, with the things that foster brand love and get the brand at the center of pop culture. It’s kind of like the formula that we have for our brand, and it’s the formula that has been working quite well.

Dua:But it’s also not just about punny campaigns, it’s also about purpose. So you’ve done a number of those campaigns including Whopper Sign and Whopper Neutrality. Why is that important to you as a brand and why is it important to be purpose-driven?

Machado:Yeah, I think it comes down to the positioning of the brand. In our case we see ourselves like yeah, sure, we sell the Whopper, but even if you think about the sandwich it’s a perfectly imperfect sandwich: like flame-grilled, no Whopper is the same as the other, made to order, kind of messy, perfectly imperfect.

If you think about beyond just the sandwich, we are the brand that puts the crown on everyone’s head. We are the brand that allows you to have it your way, which basically means respect for the individual. So, our brand, yes it has great products, but it also has the latitude to play on a bigger emotional space. So, when we find an idea, or a cause, or a topic that we feel we can play a role in a positive way, why not?

So that’s why we did Bullying Jr, for instance, which is a campaign we did I think like end of last year. It’s a beautiful, beautiful campaign. You know? It has to do a little bit of education. We were always involved with education through the McLamore Foundation, which is a Burger King foundation. It’s a topic that goes against some of our values, of welcoming everyone with a crown, I mean bullying goes against that. It goes against respecting the individual, have it your way, so we went and did something against bullying.

We did Proud Whopper which was basically like showcasing that we welcome everyone, we did Whopper Sign, which was showcasing that we welcome everyone. And it’s more than just a stunt. The film is kind of the flashy thing that everyone sees and talks about and shares on social media. But we have lots of things that happen behind the scenes, with the partnerships that we have.

With No Bully, for instance, or the fact that we sponsored Pride parades all over the world when we did the Proud Whopper and we continue to do that. Or the fact that we did a partnership with Gallaudet, which is a university that’s the largest university for deaf or hard of hearing in the U.S. These are all things that also happen when we do those campaigns.

Dua:Does it bother you when people look at it or dismiss it as a stunt?

Machado:It doesn’t bother me because doing something different will always raise some eyebrows, and we are always trying to do something different. Why go for the status quo when I’m not the largest brand in the pack? I need to stand out, we need to stand out as a brand. So haters gonna hate. And we listen to feedback, and we always try to make it better when the feedback makes sense. But when people call something a stunt, maybe sometimes it is, maybe sometimes the person is just not informed about all the things that we are doing around that idea around that campaign.

Dua:So, a lot of your competitors are going for the bespoke agency model. They don’t believe in the agency model as it currently exists, and you work very closely with a whole network of agencies, and you’re not doing that much work in-house. Why is that?

Machado:Oh, it’s a good question. I think that we have awesome agency partners, like David from WPP, MullenLowe Boston, LOLA MullenLowe in Spain, Grabarz & Partners, La Despensa in Spain. I could go on and on and on talking about the awesome agencies that do work for us. And it’s working, they are part of our team, they are part of the brand team.

I personally, this is just my personal opinion, I personally believe that if you are creative, you need to be thinking about more than one thing at the same time. The creative brain cannot focus just on one thing. I think that people tend to get bored when they do that, so I would fear that I would not be able to capture the best creative people that currently work for us if I forced them to work in just one brand. But who knows, maybe I’m wrong. Time will tell. So far, the formula has been working for us at BK and we will continue to do it that way.

Dua:So as a global chief marketing officer, what do you think is the most powerful tool in your arsenal today as far as marketing is concerned and what is the biggest marketing myth out there?

Machado:I think that the biggest thing for us is always trying to find an amazing, awesome idea. All the rest is secondary to that. Sometimes people ask me, how do you deal with media fragmentation, and AI, VR, AR, and all those things, which is great, I mean you need to be up to speed on what’s going on out there, but we start with the idea, and then the idea will dictate all the rest. And I think that that way of thinking is very liberating for you and for the agencies, and I think that’s the thing, one of the key things that make us distinct out there.

Dua:The myth?

Machado:The myth, oh my God, where to start? I don’t know, I hear so much stuff, you know. I don’t necessarily agree with, like going back to people always ask us what if it backfires? It never did for us, you know? And when it does, the media cycles are frequent and short. People move on, you know what I mean? Even if you have a disaster on your brand, well, hopefully, that doesn’t happen, but if it does, 72 hours later, people are going to be talking about the next thing. And hopefully, you’re going to come back to where you should be. That doesn’t, never happened to us, by the way.

Or like, how do you balance the long-term and short-term? Or like, why have a point of view on some social things, you know, like maybe you should focus on the product. You can do both, you know? We are a success case doing both. We have lots of promotional things on TV. We are bringing products to the marketplace all the time, we are working on products all the time. We are very proud of the products we serve, and we continue to work to improve them but we also can talk about bullying, net neutrality, or sign language, or LGBTQ because that’s what matters to people out there. And I want our brand should be part of those conversations.

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