5 Marketing Lessons Burger King Learned From Studying Hackers

Combining creativity with pop culture

Burger King hacked its way to killer advertising. Burger King
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CANNES, France—The King’s in town … and last year’s Marketer of the Year is still a big draw. The line to hear from his minions stretched literally up a flight of stairs and around several corners. Is that really how much we love Whoppers, or have we all been successfully hacked?

Fernando Machado, global chief marketing officer of Burger King, hit the stage at the Lions to address that very question, along with David Miami’s associate creative directors, Juan Javier Peña and Ricardo Casal.

Hackvertising is easy enough to understand. “We’re not just ad experts; we’re full-on nerds,” Peña said. “We thought if we could decode what hackers do and the framework they use, we could bring it back to advertising and use it for brands to hack pop culture consistently.”

How do you actually do that? Here are five tips from the King’s creative team.

Step 1: Define a system to hack. How worthy is your idea?

“The best way for us to find real insights, real stuff, is on imgur, 4chan, social media. That’s where the conversation is happening fast. You can’t wait for the news the next day,” Casal counseled.

He continued: “Pro-tip: Use trendsmap.com. It’s one of the best tools we have out there to see what the world is talking about.”

It was actually by using trendsmap that Burger King conceived one of its bigger recent ideas to date:

The origin story is interesting: At the time, the latest Star Wars had just come out, but it wasn’t making anything resembling a blip on trendsmap. “When people aren’t talking about Star Wars, you know something’s wrong,” Peña foreshadowed.

Hashtags like #netneutrality and #ajitpai were dominating instead. Casal admitted it wasn’t clear to any of them what all of this was about—and the feeling was mutual. “It took us a few hours to understand what this was about,” he recounted.

“We did research on why these people were using these hashtags, and we found out it was mostly because no one knew what they were,” said Casal. “They didn’t know that in the U.S., the internet was about to change for good.”

Burger King decided to educate them about net neutrality’s repercussions, using “the most democratizing thing we have at Burger King”—the Whopper, of course—and the rest was history.

Well, except for convincing Machado, who hated it. “You did a really shitty job explaining it,” he told Casal onstage.

The explanatory video hit a nerve. And while it would be easy to dismiss it as a brand taking a hard stance on a political topic, Casal admitted, “It wasn’t that political, to be honest. 79 percent of Republicans didn’t want net neutrality repealed; 81 percent of Democrats didn’t want it repealed. 80 percent of the country was in favor of net neutrality. … We were standing in favor of the internet, and standing in favor of the American people.”

Next thing you know, they were at the White House, and their work was being used as a case study in the Senate for defending an open internet.

“Not even in my wildest, most optimistic, crazy dreams would I think that our brand, a burger brand, would end up in the U.S. Senate, being discussed as an example of something that helped people understand it was a big issue,” Machado beamed.

Step 2: Study it.

This tip is about “how to get in, like hackers do,” said Casal. “They get into software, they get out of software [so they don’t go to jail]. So it’s about knowing the rules so you can bend them or break them.”

Case in point: Romania’s got just one Burger King. And weirdly, it’s in the airport, past the security checkpoint. “So if you’re Romanian the only way you can get a Whopper is if you’re leaving the country,” Machado said.

But there are lots of websites that enable you to get super-cheap airline tickets at the last minute. Thus Whopper No-Show was born: A site that connects you to insanely cheap flights, so cheap you don’t actually feel the need to take them… just so you can get through security and have a damn Whopper.

@luckthelady angela.natividad@gmail.com Angela Natividad is a frequent contributor to Adweek's creativity blog, AdFreak. She is also the author of Generation Creation and co-founder of Hurrah, an esports agency. She lives in Paris and when she isn't writing, she can be found picking food off your plate.