'Creativity has power to bend logic': Burger King CMO's 5 keys to brand boom

'We're not afraid sometimes -- we're afraid every fucking time. You need to be willing to put your career at risk to make shit happen.'

Fernando Machado: Ad nerd. And proud.

Burger King’s chief marketing officer (widely celebrated as the industry’s most-loved) grew up piling into a room with friends after work, smoking and watching TV commercials. For fun.

"We would get the reel from Clio or Cannes and just watch the stuff," Machado told a crowd at Advertising Week on Tuesday. "I remember thinking, ‘one day, I hope I can do something that’s remotely close to greatness as this.’"

Credit where credit’s due -- because he’s done exactly that. 

Machado rose through the marketing ranks over an 18-year span at Unilever after starting out as a factory intern. His career with the CPG goliath culminated in London where he ran Dove’s marketing efforts. He knew it was time to move on when he felt happy and comfortable. 

"I thought about brands that I was passionate about but wasn’t doing such great work," Machado said. He explained how -- in those smoke-filled rooms of his younger years -- the infamous "Subservient Chicken" campaign by Crispin, Porter + Bogusky for Burger King had won his heart. However, the standard of work since then had slid dramatically. Machado wanted to change that. So he literally called the fast-food giant and asked for a job. 

Around the time he joined, Burger King had put out an ad with Aerosmith’s lead singer Steven Tyler.

The CMO continued: "It makes me want to throw up in my mouth. It’s everything I hate about advertising: let’s hire a bunch of celebrities and your board will probably like it because they know who the celebrities are, and it’s completely disconnected to the brand history."

Bleak product packaging coupled the onslaught of dire celebrity ads. Machado likened the burger bag to something you’d find in a hospital holding that super hot variety of chicken soup guaranteed to burn your hands.

Restaurant decor was also an issue. "It’s almost as if the brief was, ‘make it generic,’" he explained, showcasing images of smiling families identical to those housed in McDonald’s at the time.

Machado has been with Burger King for six years. That time has been witness to a remarkable brand transformation. Since being at the marketing helm, he’s led the chain from one Cannes Lions trophy in 2014 to 40 this year.

Talking to Burger King’s most successful marketing year yet, he said: "We believe creativity can yield a better business result and a better brand. The Whopper Detour is the best example of creativity being a competitive advantage. Because creativity has the power of bending logic."

The Whopper Detour, which took home a Direct Grand Prix at 2019 Cannes, is a masterpiece in trolling created in partnership with Burger King’s agency of record, FCB (this work came out of its New York office). 

The client brief was simple: make mobile payment ordering relevant. It had all the potential to flop if the right creative wasn’t pursued. But Machado’s belief in doing things the most when you’re peak scared prevailed. 

"The trick is not being fearless," he said. "The trick is to do even when you’re afraid."

Here are the five key factors he attributes Burger King’s success to:

1. Understand your brand

"In our case, we have a brand that’s been in the marketplace since 1954 and despite the fact that we were doing really shitty work, people still liked the brand," Machado said. 

He spoke of the immense brand affinity: from the smile he gets when he tells border control who he works for as he enters the U.S., to the child-like state patrons revert to when you adorn Burger King’s famous crown.

2. Create a great brief

"The more you try to put in, the less you can try to take out," he explained. "People think that writing a short brief is easy -- it’s really difficult -- because it requires you to do your homework. 

"You have to think about what the main thing is that you want to communicate and why that one thing is going to connect and click with people’s minds. You need to have a deep understanding of what you’re trying to accomplish."

Today’s normal Burger King brief looks like this: "Showcase Whopper love."

3. Let the idea grow

Machado continued: "Every time we see an idea that we don’t know how to do, we like it. Every time. Because the fact that we don’t know how to do it means it most likely hasn’t been done before. But I’ve seen so many people on the client side killing ideas because they don’t know how to do it. Imagine Whopper Detour when the guys said we need to geo-fence every McDonald’s restaurants, which is 14,000. We did it. 

"When a lion is born, it’s a baby lion -- it’s so easy to kill. When the idea is born, it’s fragile and we need to protect it. Don’t think that because Burger King is doing a lot of cool stuff that it keep an open door -- there is always a fight. You need to be willing to put your career at risk sometimes to make shit happen. If it was easy then everyone would do it. You have to trust uncertainty and let the idea grow.

4. The biggest risk is not taking any risk

He stressed: "We’re not afraid sometimes -- we’re afraid every fucking time. If we were not afraid we would not do it. The trick is not being fearless. The trick is to do even when you’re afraid. 

"Every time we launch a campaign the whole team is anxious. Most of our campaigns include someone in the team from legal. They’re not there to approve or disapprove something, they’re part of the team, sitting with us, brainstorming with us, finding solutions.

5. One team

The CMO added: "We’re one team with our creative partners. It’s not like an agency/client relationship. We are together all the time, you don’t know who is client and who is agency. We work very collaboratively together and we respect each other a lot. 

"Second, we’re one team internally. I see many companies that act a little like Game Of Thrones; the global team hates the regional team, that hates the local team, that hates legal, that hates the supply chain -- and nothing happens. We work very transparently all the time. We have a WhatsApp group with every region with 150 people from the marketing team. We’re talking all the time -- even memes and stuff like that."

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