Burger King in Cape Town. Picture: RUVAN BOSHOFF
Burger King in Cape Town. Picture: RUVAN BOSHOFF

Ad agencies spend an inordinate amount of time convincing clients to embrace risk. Few are prepared to do it and only a handful get it right. But one brand is building that thinking into its marketing DNA.

Speaking at the Cannes Lions Festival of Creativity in France, Fernando Machado, global chief marketing officer of Burger King, told delegates that in order to differentiate itself from arch-rival McDonald’s his approach is to embrace constant fear of backlash and see risk-taking as part of his brand’s evolving journey. Burger King has become famous for using a device called "hackvertising" — essentially defining an online target audience; finding a way to "break in" to their conversation and then exploiting it for maximum effect.

Machado — along with his agency partner, the Miami-based David agency — said the original thinking was to decode what hackers do and the framework they use, bring it back to advertising and use it for his brand to hack pop culture. Careful upfront planning is needed.

Fernando Machado. Picture: SUPPLIED
Fernando Machado. Picture: SUPPLIED

First, brands need to find a platform to hack and interrogate the power of the idea. Running counter to conventional thinking, the agency says research these days is often better accomplished by using websites like trendsmap.com — a real-time platform that shows what people around the world are talking about — instead of face-to-face consumer engagement.

One example is how Burger King established, on the day of a major Star Wars release, that Americans were not focusing on the film but rather on a debate on the concept of "Net neutrality" — a principle that Internet service providers treat all data on the Internet equally, and not discriminate or charge differently. The company created an ad around its Whopper burger in which customers discovered that the typical Whopper price only got them a "slow access product pass", meaning they would have to wait longer for their burger unless they paid more.

Burger King employees explained the new rules to angry customers by calling it "Whopper neutrality". The campaign eventually led to an invitation to the White House and was even raised in the US senate. Machado says: "The Burger King brand believes the Internet should be like the Whopper sandwich: the same for everyone."

Disruption is bold

Machado said disruption constantly requires a well-thought-out strategy and not being afraid of consequences. He cited one clear example. On a single day each year in the US the proceeds of one burger offering are donated to charity by McDonald’s. In a spirit of altruism Burger King declined to sell its opposing product and instead sent customers to McDonald’s. The public relations mileage obtained was enormous.

Brands also need to be aware of real-time relevance. Burger King noticed there were differences in how emojis — a small digital image used to express an idea or emotion — were showing the placement of cheese in burgers, either on top or underneath meat patties. The brand then capitalised on the growing need for product personalisation by turning different emoji incarnations into real hamburgers and giving customers a choice.

Machado and his agency say brands wanting to play in this space should have their lawyers on speed dial. A cheeky ad execution took publicly available pictures of the back gardens of former McDonald’s executives in which there were portable flame-grill cookers. Burger King uses this method while its rival fries its food. Machado said there was much debate about privacy before the campaign flighted.