Insight & strategy

Contagious I/O

11 March 2020

Burger King and the method behind the Moldy Whopper madness 

We speak to Burger King CMO Fernando Machado and Ingo ECD Bjorn Stahl about their decision using a rotting sandwich to advertise a fast food joint and how it's increased store visit consideration by 22.8%

[This article was first published on Contagious I/O, our online intelligence tool. To find out more click here]

Two weeks ago, Burger King shocked consumers and divided adland with the Moldy Whopper, a time-lapse video in which Burger King’s signature sandwich decomposes over 34 days.

The campaign is intended to increase awareness of Burger King’s commitment to remove artificial preservatives from all of its food by the end of the year. In most European countries the QSR is 100% preservative-free, and 90% in North America.

Three different agencies are credited with the Moldy Whopper: Ingo, Stockholm, David Miami and Publicis Worldwide. All agencies worked collaboratively, but Ingo filmed the rotting burger, which is featured across all the creative.

To understand more about the campaign, which appears to break every rule in food advertising, we spoke with Fernando Machado, chief marketing officer at Burger King, and Bjorn Stahl, executive creative director at Ingo.

Tell us about how the Burger King brand has changed over the past few years.

Fernando Machado: I grew up looking up at the wonderful work Burger King created 10 to 12 years ago, during the golden era of [ad agency] Crispin Porter + Bogusky. Whopper Freakout, Subservient Chicken and Whopper Virgins just to name a few. But when I joined six years ago, the brand was a bit dusty. We were not doing work that the creative teams were proud of, we had weak agency relationships and it had been a while since we’d had a big marketing campaign success. But I would say that we have now reinvigorated the brand and returned to our roots, no longer holding back when it comes to big, daring and bold ideas.

Here at Burger King, creativity is a competitive advantage for the business and for the brand. That is the only reason why we do the ideas that we do.

Fernando Machado, Burger King Global

Who is Burger King’s target audience? Has this changed or remained consistent over the past five years?

Machado: When it comes to fast food, it’s a really broad target audience. If you visit a Burger King, you will see all sorts of people – men, women, groups, individuals, higher and lower incomes... I think the biggest challenge that we have now is capturing this new generation of consumers that are coming in, the younger 18-24 demographic.

How has targeting this younger audience influenced Burger King’s media plan?

Machado: Five years ago, all our media was behind TV, and I don’t mean traditional media, I mean specifically TV – because it still gave us a good cost per reach in most markets. However, it was really becoming old and failing to connect with younger demographics. We have our bread and butter, which is more promotional, traditional media (because that is how the category moves), but we layer [work] on top of that which is more provocative and aimed at connecting with a younger demographic.

We had about a dozen ideas and when Machado saw this one, he said: ‘It’s against every rule of food advertising, I love it, we have to make it.’

Bjorn Stahl, Ingo, Stockholm

How did the concept for the Moldy Whopper originate? Was there a brief?

Bjorn Stahl: It was a simple brief, like always from BK. Tell people we’ve cleaned up our burgers from ingredients from artificial sources. That’s it. We had about a dozen ideas and when Machado saw this one, he said: ‘It’s against every rule of food advertising, I love it, we have to make it.’ Then he also quickly said that David [Miami] presented a similar idea a couple of years earlier. But when David presented their idea, BK weren’t ready to go ahead with it. They were still cleaning out artificial ingredients. Then we got the go head to start working with it, but Fernando asked us to cooperate with David and I thought it was a great idea since I’ve always admired their work and we’re in the same family.

When I think about the purpose of our brand, what excites us, what motivates us and gets us out of bed in the morning, it is the core desire to have a positive impact on the world. To make sure that the product that we are serving is getting better, day after day.

Fernando Machado, Burger King Global

Why is removing preservatives from production important for Burger King?

Machado: We started down this road about three or four years ago, focusing on removing colours, flavours, preservatives, MSG and high-fructose corn syrup from our food. We decided to do that because our research shows that real food tastes better and people also feel better about the food that they are eating. For many years fast food carried this stigma of being crappy when that is not necessarily the case. Our competitors are also investing heavily to serve great quality food.

Fast food does offer convenience and good value, but if we’re able to do this and improve the nutritional profile of the food we serve, it’s going to make a huge difference to billions of people every year. When I think about the purpose of our brand, what excites us, what motivates us and gets us out of bed in the morning, it is the core desire to have a positive impact on the world. To make sure that the product that we are serving is getting better, day after day.

Can Burger King quantify the amount of preservatives it has limited from its food manufacturing process so far?

Machado: Since we started to remove artificial colours, flavours and preservatives from our food, we have eliminated 8.5 thousand tonnes a year of those ingredients globally. That is the equivalent of 38 Statues of Liberty a year. In Europe, most of our countries are already 100% free of all these preservatives, while in the US we are already at more than 90%. We are doing this because we don’t see a future in five years from now where food is not going to be real. We want to be at the forefront of that and help shape the industry in that direction.

We experimented for months, failed a multitude of times – we must have grown 30-40 Whoppers. The last bits fell in place less than 24 hours before launch.

Bjorn Stahl, Ingo, Stockholm

Once the idea was signed off, how did you set out to make the idea come to life?

Stahl: To be perfectly honest, we had no idea if we would be able to pull it off. So, we more or less solved things as we moved along. The key challenge was no doubt growing mould on Whoppers that looked great enough for the campaign. Everybody seems to think it’s just ‘put a Whopper in a box and wait’. Well, it isn’t. We experimented for months, failed a multitude of times – we must have grown 30-40 Whoppers. Then we suddenly sort of broke the code and got the hang of it. Mould grows very individually depending on various factors and it’s more or less impossible to foresee the outcome. But at the end, we got what we needed. The last bits fell in place less than 24 hours before launch.

For a campaign like this, we act on conviction. If it checks the box of our strategy and checks the box of aligning with our brand, we go for it.

Fernando Machado, Burger King Global

Did you conduct any research to help inform this campaign?

Machado: For many of our campaigns, if we just went with the traditional methodology of doing a focus group on the general population, it [would] probably not test well. Which does not mean that it will not do well in the marketplace, because we craft a proper media strategy to make sure the ad resonates with people who will be more open-minded to it. Therefore, we can create a wave of positivity behind the idea and that impacts the way that other people think about [it]. It’s very difficult to simulate that in traditional research. For a campaign like this, we act on conviction. If it checks the box of our strategy and checks the box of aligning with our brand, we go for it.

​​​​​​​How much of Burger King’s total annual budget is Moldy Whopper and how does this campaign fit in with your other comms?

Machado: It’s a very small amount because when we do something like Moldy Whopper or Whopper Detour, we do it with the intent that the idea is so powerful that it triggers a dollar multiplier on the media plan. I don’t need to invest millions of dollars to achieve that desired fact, that is the beauty of creativity. If we had created a flat spot explaining Burger King removing preservatives, no one would have cared, no one would have talked about it and it would have gone completely over people’s heads. We have had ads like that in the past, but no one is talking about them because you probably never even heard about them.

Can you explain the media behind this campaign? How is it being rolled out globally?

Machado: The way that we work is that we have a global team, regional teams and local teams. This structure is rather fragmented because most of the markets are owned by a master franchisee. When we create a global campaign, we create a toolkit that provides global usage rights for all of the assets. I cannot force people to use the assets, but we can recommend the channels that we think people should use, based on the idea, the type of campaign or the audience we’re trying to reach. But each market deploys the campaign in accordance with their point of view of how to maximise the impact.

The majority of our most famous campaigns have a strong component of paid social media and PR. For instance, in the US, the bulk of the media money was in social through Facebook and Twitter. Then in Sweden, that market went all-in on the campaign, creating massive OOH in Stockholm with takeovers of subways stations, print in the biggest newspapers, the whole shebang. The US invested more money than Sweden, because Sweden is a smaller market and it is not cheap to do a strong push on social in the US. But in Sweden it was everywhere, Denmark, France the same thing. Other countries like Brazil and Mexico did OOH, some others did print, cinema, TV – but each market was focusing on leveraging media channels to create a conversation.

Tell us about the early results – what are the current impressions for the Moldy Whopper campaign?

Machado: We’re still counting, but Moldy Whopper is already above 8.4 billion organic impressions. Every time we go above three billion impressions, we consider that a success, typically resulting in increased visitation and Burger King being a little bit more top of mind for consumers.

[On Facebook] there were almost 1.4 million total minutes viewed on the video and 39% of total viewers watched all 45 seconds of the video. This is significantly higher than the benchmark as we typically see users start to drop off at around four seconds into the video.

[On Twitter] the campaign tweet exceeded the organic benchmark engagement rate by 159%, and the organic benchmark video view count by 187%. Paid promotion helped to boost reach, but we saw much stronger engagement through our owned audience, which is to be expected.

Instagram content saw strong performance as well, with the in-feed photo exceeding the engagement rate benchmark by 27% and the IG Story exceeding benchmark by 59%. The fact that the creative was varied across platforms also likely led to successful metrics as it helped avoid audience fatigue, which has been a factor in previous campaign performance. 

Our Super Bowl spot from 2019, which was the most talked about Super Bowl ad of that year, reached 20% awareness. The Moldy Whopper earned 50% more awareness than Andy Warhol, which was something that went nuclear.

Fernando Machado, Burger King Global

Has Moldy Whopper’s no preservatives message gotten through to those who have seen the campaign?

Machado: The level of awareness of Burger King removing preservatives from artificial sources amongst people who saw the campaign against those that didn’t, was 5X. The level of awareness for the campaign in the US is 30%, which is pretty high for one single campaign. To give you an idea, our Super Bowl spot from 2019, which was the most talked about Super Bowl ad of that year, reached 20% awareness. The Moldy Whopper earned 50% more awareness than Andy Warhol [the ‘Eat Like Andy’ ad from last year], which was something that went nuclear.

Given the unappetising visuals, people are curious about whether sentiment towards the brand has been negatively impacted.

Machado: Change in the attributes of the brand such as ‘association with real and authentic’, ‘feeling good about Burger King’s food’ and ‘association to high-quality ingredients’ have all shifted north of 20%. Also, when you ask people who have watched the ad compared to those who haven’t, we have more than 80% positive, neutral sentiment. It’s really resonating with our target demographic of younger consumers. They think it’s honest, sincere and a bit self-deprecating. They get it.

The only thing that matters for us here is people, real people, the people who are potential guests and customers, what they think about the campaign and whether they understood the message. It was never to achieve short term sales.

Fernando Machado, Burger King Global

What language is Burger King using to monitor sentiment around the Moldy Whopper?

Machado: Usually our sentiment is driven by Twitter and we always have a large neutral chunk because it’s basically a lot of people retweeting articles without any writing. With Moldy Whopper we had to help the algorithm calculate the sentiment correctly, because a lot of the words linked to our campaign are input as negative, despite being positive. For example, when someone says that ‘this campaign is disgustingly amazing’, the algorithm says that this is negative, but it is not. It registers the word ‘disgusting’ and views it as negative.

When I read articles of people saying ‘Oh, it was negative’ or ‘people are grossed out’, I think people are asking the questions in a wrong or biased way. If I showed you the ad and asked, ‘Do you think that this is gross?’, I think the answer is yeah, it’s a bit gross. ‘Would it make you want to eat at Burger King?’, you’d probably answer no to that, because otherwise you’d sound stupid. Therefore, we don’t ask the questions that way. I don’t need to ask if it’s gross, I know it is. It was done like that on purpose. But it was also created in a beautiful way, almost like a piece of art.

What about sales results – is that a core part of how you’ll measure the success of this campaign?

Machado: The only thing that matters for us here is people, real people, the people who are potential guests and customers – what they think about the campaign and whether they understood the message. It was never to achieve short term sales. If I wanted to trigger short term sales, I would run a promotion and trigger short term sales within minutes. I have the sales data of every country delivered [to my cell phone] twice a day. So, I know that nothing beats a promo, but I cannot just do promos. I think that is one of the key challenges that the CMO has: how to balance the short and long term. I’m here to stay, so I need to view Burger King in the long term.

What do you say to people who say that the Moldy Whopper has only been created to win awards?

Machado: Some people are saying this is for awards, really? I don’t get any extra bonus for awards. It’s also not like we need more awards, we have brought in more than 100 Lions in the past five years, Burger King was Creative Brand of the Year at Cannes 2019 and we are number one on the WARC 100 for the second year in a row. We don’t need it. In the past, some of our campaigns have felt more stunty. This is not a stunt. This is a string of communications that will change Burger King and potentially even the industry.

Do you think the Burger King Moldy Whopper will be groundbreaking or destructive for the BK brand? Is this the bravest campaign that the brand has ever created?

Machado: It’s not whether I think it will or not, I have the data to prove it has been groundbreaking. Let’s not forget that Burger King is a part of Restaurant Brands International, [whose] main shareholder is 3G Capital, a private equity company. If what we did here didn’t deliver results, we wouldn’t be allowed to do what we’ve been doing for so long. I wouldn’t have lasted six months here, let alone six years. We are crazy enough to believe that this will have that impact. It’s hard to say if it’s the bravest campaign we’ve ever done, because I’m a massive fan of a lot of our work, but I do think that Moldy Whopper breaks the largest number of rules.

If you want to do different, unique work that will help evolve the marketing and advertising industry as a whole, getting criticised is a part of the package. It’s much better than doing mediocre or average work that becomes irrelevant and doesn’t get criticised by anyone.

Fernando Machado, Burger King Global

Why is creativity so important to Burger King?

Machado: I don’t have pockets that are as deep as some of my competitors, so I need to bet on creativity to help Burger King become competitive. Here at Burger King, creativity is a competitive advantage for the business and for the brand. That is the only reason why we do the ideas that we do.

What has been your single greatest learning from this campaign so far?

Machado: Whenever you do something that stands out, even if it stands out in a positive way, it will bring criticism. Look, I was leading Dove Real Beauty Sketches, I cannot think of a campaign more purposeful than that. It still got criticised. If you want to do different, unique work that will help evolve the marketing and advertising industry as a whole, getting criticised is a part of the package. That is a very liberating thought: getting criticised is an intrinsic part of being successful. You shouldn’t be afraid of that. It’s much better than doing mediocre or average work that becomes irrelevant and doesn’t get criticised by anyone.

This was first published on Contagious I/O, our online intelligence tool. To find out more click here.