How Fernando Machado is bringing Burger King 'back to greatness'

Fernando Machado.
Fernando Machado.

As "McWhopper" swoops up trophies this awards season, most recently at D&AD, a look at the man behind the brand's marketing renaissance

Fernando Machado is pacing excitedly in front of the room at the Conrad Hotel, delivering the afternoon keynote at The One Club’s Creative Summit, talking at a brisk pace about the reinvention of Burger King, apologizing when he lets a curse slip out.

His enthusiasm for the topic is barely contained by his compact frame, which is dressed in all black except for the green, red, brown and yellow stripes accenting his Burger King jacket (colors inspired by the ingredients of the Whopper).

"I’m so honored to be here," he says, "and that David Droga was opening for me," referring to the hotshot agency founder and creative who spoke earlier in the day. The gag gets a laugh, one of many he’ll receive that afternoon.

As senior vice president for global brand management at Burger King, Machado’s fervor is understandable. After all, this Brazilian native had been admiring the brand’s work for more than a decade. He opens with a montage of some of the company’s most notable campaigns, all but one from Crispin Porter + Bogusky. Scenes from "Whopper Freakout," "Subservient Chicken," "Whopper Sacrifice," and "Whopper Virgins," among others, play on the screen as a soundtrack thumps out a techno ode to the burger, "Yum, yum, on my tongue. I really like your Whopper."

"I still remember when I saw the ‘Subservient Chicken’ for the first time. It completely screwed up my day because I spent the whole day typing, ‘dance like Michael Jackson,’ ‘do this,’ ‘do that,’" says Machado of the seminal 2004 site that put visitors in control of a man in a kinky chicken suit.

"Whopper Freakout," the 2007 campaign that captured the outrage of real customers who’d been told the chain no longer carried its signature sandwich, still has the highest recall of any of the brand’s advertising in the US, he notes. 

"I would look at those things and think, ‘I would chop my arm off to be part of the team that was doing that cool stuff," Machado tells the audience.

Two-and-a-half years ago, Machado was given the chance. After 18-years at Unilever, Machado, 41, who began working at the packaged goods giant as a college student and left as a global VP on Dove, joined Burger King determined to reignite the brand with advertising as bold and celebrated as its legacy.

"We needed to get the brand back to greatness," Machado says.  "I think we are at a tipping point."

Machado isn’t alone in that estimation. Since assuming a leading global marketing role at the fast-food giant in early 2014, Machado has helped produce advertising that strikes an appealing balance between purposeful and playful. The brand is once again winning industry accolades with work such as the "Proud Whopper," which won 13 Lions at Cannes last year. And "McWhopper," which won top honors at the Andy Awards last month, is currently swooping up trophies on the 2016 awards circuit. Just last week, the campaign won nine pencils at the D&AD Awards, making Burger King and the agency that created it, Y&R New Zealand, the most awarded at the show.

Even better, the new ads are helping drive a sales renaissance at Burger King-something that wasn’t always true of the work Machado so admired a decade ago.

"Business results are coming," says Machado. "And we are seeing the brand getting stronger and stronger."

A Creative's client
If anyone could help Burger King do that, it is Machado. An avid student of advertising and an ambitious marketer who is hyper aware of creative talent, trends and award winners, Machado is often described by colleagues as a creative’s client.

"He really believes in the power of creativity," says Tony Granger, global chief creative officer of Young & Rubicam. "He has been the champion of some amazing ideas."

He delivers sharp briefs, makes quick decisions, knows how to champion and sell ideas, is not afraid to take risks and is as passionate about the work as they are, they say.

"What everyone values about working with Fernando is his energy. He is a genuine enthusiast for comms and every other aspect of marketing," says his former boss, Steve Miles, executive vice president of global marketing, Dove at Unilever, in an email message.

"He just loves great work, whoever has produced it, and wants to share it and learn from it," Miles continues. "He likes moving quickly, and he wants to get his own hands dirty, staying in there with his team. And his energy is infectious."

That enthusiasm propelled him throughout his career at Unilever. "I decided to learn by doing," says Machado, who began working for the packaged goods giant part-time on the factory floor while a college student in Sao Paulo. "Unilever was a marketing school for me." 

Inspired to study engineering by his father, who was a civil engineer in the Brazilian army, Machado says he was good with numbers but also had a creative side. "I was really bored," says Machado of his field of study. "It was too theoretical."  

His work at Unilever introduced to him to marketing, and after graduating in 1997, he joined the company’s management training program. He began working on a small detergent brand in Brazil, and after a couple of years graduated to household cleaning products. After taking a sabbatical in 2003 to get an MBA, Machado began a steady ascent up the marketing ranks. He went to Mexico in 2004 as a regional director to lead Unilever’s skin care portfolio in Latin America; and a few years later, to New York, as global brand development director on Vaseline.

It was there, working with BBH New York, that his work first began getting noticed, he says, with a global campaign, "Skin is Amazing," that was recognized with a Gold Global Effie and a Bronze Lion, among other awards. After a brief return to Brazil, he was asked in 2010 to join the London team to work on Dove as VP of global brand development. 

Dove had a history of iconic advertising. "Evolution," the early viral hit that exposed the work that goes into turning a pretty woman into a model, had won two Grand Prix lions in 2007, but had produced few big hits since then. "It’s really hard to top that," says Machado. But he did. In 2013, Machado and a team from Ogilvy Brazil created Dove "Beauty Sketches," which made clever use of a sketch artist to show women how much they underestimated their own beauty. The three-minute video became one of the most shared videos in advertising history, with more than 160 million views, and won 19 Cannes Lions and top honors at the North American Effie Awards in 2014.

"I was doing my dream job," says Machado of his last years at Unilever. "I knew everyone from the doorman to the CEO."

But a year and a half after "Sketches," Machado began to feel stagnated. "I felt the urge to do something different," he says. "I felt I was not learning at the same pace as before. And for the first time in my career, I didn’t feel the urge to be promoted."

Reaching for the crown
Over coffee on a chilly spring morning in New York City, Machado, wearing a "Have It Your Way" Burger King t-shirt, explains how, in 2013 — while still working at Unilever — he set his sights on a job at Burger King.

Machado, who has a penchant for organizing his thoughts in numbered points as he talks, gives three reasons why he wanted to join Burger King. One, his passion for the brand. A fan of Crispin’s most adventurous work, Machado says it had been years since he’d seen the brand create interesting advertising. "I was arrogant enough to think that I could take that brand and get it back to greatness," he says. Two, Brazilian investment firm 3G Capitol had acquired the chain in 2010, and a new team led by CEO Daniel Schwartz, a Cornell graduate in his mid-30s, was streamlining operations and instituting a new culture of innovation. And three, the company had a fragmented system around the world and was building a greater global marketing function.

He called a former MBA classmate, Alex Macedo, Burger King’s North American president, and made his pitch. A visit to Miami headquarters at the end of 2013 confirmed what he suspected from afar, that Burger King would be a good fit. "It was a very young, very eager, very startup mentality," says Machado. "I felt I could learn something and potentially add some value with the global brand experience I had from Unilever."

Just a few weeks after his visit, he joined the global marketing team led by Axel Schwan, and began his brand work by examining the positioning. Burger King, which had long relied on its "Have It Your Way" message, had become too transactional, says Machado, and its advertising forgettable. And the packaging made the chain’s product look as appetizing as hospital food. "Where the brand was failing was in the heart," Machado says. "We were very tactical, but not really connecting on a deeper emotional level."

Machado turned to David, a WPP agency led by Anselmo Ramos, one of the creative masterminds behind Dove "Sketches," to help sharpen the positioning. "It’s a real brand, authentic and bold," says Ramos, but it had relied too much in recent years on scripted, celebrity-focused advertising. To return the brand to a more consumer-centric positioning, "Have it your way," a message that had become functional, was transformed into "Be your way," a message of inclusion and individuality. "We welcome everyone because Burger King is about authentic food attracting authentic people," explains Ramos.

The new theme also aligns with the brand’s core product, the Whopper, each one slightly different because of the way it's cooked. Even the global brand redesign, from Turner Duckworth, was inspired by the sandwich. The color scheme was taken straight from the burger ingredients and the type treatment, slightly overlapping, is "perfectly imperfect," just like the grill marks found on the Whopper, says Machado.

"Burger King is super democratic. It puts the crown on everyone,"  he adds. "We welcome everyone, we do things differently, and we encourage you to be your own way, by welcoming you to be as different as the products we sell."

While the brand doesn’t produce global campaigns in the traditional sense, the marketing and advertising is unified by the brand positioning and the new identity. "We have a whole ecosystem of agencies linked by our positioning and the ambition of doing great work," says Machado, in an email.

Burger King’s agencies include Code & Theory for digital, ABPR for PR, Horizon for media, and several partners in key markets such as Grabarz in Germany and LaDespensa in Spain, among others. 

Transforming the work

Machado’s first campaign, six months into the job, proved that positioning with "Proud Whopper." In honor of Gay Pride, Burger King introduced a limited-edition sandwich packaged in double-sided rainbow-colored wrapping. The burger was no different than any other Whopper and on the inside was the message, "We are all the same inside."

"We’re trying to make the brand meaningful, to talk to the heart of people," explains Machado.

Having grown up at a purpose-driven company like Unilever, Machado stresses that the dedication runs deeper than ad messages. And "Proud Whopper" was more than just a single-city stunt, he tells the Creative Summit attendees. The brand sponsored gay pride parades in both New York and San Francisco, a first for the brand in the U.S., says Machado, and dropped 100,000 rainbow-colored crowns on parade-goers in both cities. All sales of the burger were donated to the Burger King McLamore Foundation for scholarships benefiting LGBT high school seniors, and it invested internally to raise its corporate equality index, which measures workplace inclusion, from a 55 two years ago this year’s to 85.  "It was disruption, not just on YouTube and Facebook, it was disruption internally," says Machado.

Last year, Machado followed "Proud Whopper" with the "McWhopper," an audacious campaign from Y&R New Zealand, that, in honor of International Peace Day, proposed a one-day truce with McDonald’s so the two brands would combine their marquee sandwiches. Just for that one day, the brands would serve the burger at a co-branded pop-up store in Atlanta, the mid-point between the company’s headquarter cities; McDonalds in Chicago; and Burger King in Miami. And all proceeds would benefit the NGO Peace One Day.

McDonald’s said no, but four other brands joined Burger King, and fans flooded YouTube with their own mashups. The campaign generated more than 8.9 billion media impressions, the equivalent of $100 million of earned media, says Machado.

It was a campaign that was years in the making. Y&R had tried to sell the controversial idea locally for years, but it wasn’t until Josh Moore, agency CEO and CCO, emailed Machado directly about it that it became a reality. He responded 40 minutes later, with an all-caps message saying, "I LOVE THIS FUCKING IDEA AND WE’RE GOING TO MAKE IT."

"He’s extremely passionate and incredibly optimistic," says Moore. "Pretty soon we were on a rollercoaster ride with a client that was determined to make it happen."

The brand is also disrupting things with a King revival. The silent, plastic-faced icon, first introduced by CP+B a decade ago, has been reappearing in advertising for the first time in five years. Recently, he appeared in a politically themed ad for chicken nuggets and in a campaign last month for American Sign Language Day where spoke for the first time—in sign language. Burger King transformed a store next to Washington, D.C.’s Gallaudet University for the deaf to display all signs, including the Burger King sign out front, using ASL hand shapes instead of letters.

The King also co-opted Burger King ads, showing up in the corner of commercials using sign language to ask the deaf to help Burger King come up with a sign for the Whopper. As part of the effort, the company is sponsoring scholarships at the school and is also changing its picture menus, which assist deaf people with ordering, to feature the King signing the products.

"Again, it is about welcoming everyone, acting differently, and attracting like-minded people," explains Machado.

The brand’s unexpected limited-edition products, like the black Halloween Whopper, which Machado called a standout performer among its limited edition Whoppers, and the spicy red "Angriest Whopper," helps the chain attract new guests, as do recently introduced menu times like Grilled Dogs and the Whopper Dog.

"It’s so rewarding seeing the brand doing cool work again," he says.

Showing results
Of course, "cool" is a dangerous word when it comes to Burger King and advertising. When Burger King parted ways with CP+B after seven years in 2011, it wasn’t for a lack of creative cred but because the chain had suffered from six quarters of declining sales. Some critics argued the agency focused its messaging too narrowly on young men, rather than, say, moms, who often decide where the entire family will eat.

But the change under the new regime and Machado has been adding up to tangible results. The company reported 4.6% growth globally in the first quarter of this year. Last year, the chain saw 5.4% growth in the U.S. and the year prior revenue was up 2.5%. Analysts attribute that the uptick in part to the company’s focus on core menu items, like the Whopper, and the return of popular items like chicken fries.  CEO Schwarz attributed it to four pillars, "menu, marketing, image and great operations."

"We brought more people to our restaurants, our sales increased, our brand became stronger. We increased profitability and we accelerated the number of restaurants we opened," Machado says in an email. "In 2015, our brand had one of the best results in history."

The work is also paying off in that other industry currency, awards. "Proud Whopper" was a big winner at Cannes last year, winning 13 Lions, and "McWhopper," which is already doing well in the shows, and "Whopper Sign," stand to be strong contenders in the global ad competition this year.  

Though many marketers speak politely but sometimes dismissively about the trophies (in public, at least), Machado — who has won more than 50 Lions in his career — says that awards serve as a proxy for him. And he mentions them often. "Winning awards is an indirect measure of success," he says. "The campaigns that win awards tend to do well for the brand."

Awards also serve as an indicator of creative standards. "It helps to be perceived as a client who can do outstanding creative work because I have more creative people wanting to work for us," says Machado. "I really believe, as a client, you get the work you deserve. If you do good work, you get even more good work."

His agency partners agree. Ramos says Machado is more passionate about advertising than even some of the people in his own agency. "He really loves this business, and that makes all the difference," he says. "He knows how to simplify the brief, he aligns the agency with the ambition of the brand, and says ‘Let’s shoot for the stars.’ "

"He’s a dreamer," he adds,  "but he’s a doer."

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