5 Marketing Lessons Burger King Learned From Studying Hackers

Combining creativity with pop culture

Burger King hacked its way to killer advertising.
Burger King

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.

“The airport did shut this down” after 10 to 15 days, Machado acknowledged. “But to pull this off, we had to study and understand the security situation at the airport.” In Miami, for example, “it’s easy for you to leave; you don’t even have to talk to anyone, you can just walk out. In Romania it’s not like that—you have to go through security again when you leave.”

Understanding those logistics were critical, as well as aligning their website with the right low-cost fare finder.

Step 3: Find a relevant way for the brand to break in.

This is among “the most important steps because it connects the brand with the topic,” said Peña. For perspective, consider malware: “Designed to take control of your system,” he said. “The malware would be your creative idea, designed to take control of the conversation.”

To get your virus going, you’ll need three things: A clear brand tone of voice, a point of view on the given topic and clear achievement objectives for your hack.

One example they screened was “Man Boobs for Boobs” a David execution that isn’t for Burger King at all, but for Argentinian breast cancer awareness nonprofit MACMA.

“Globally, there was a problem,” Casal said. “Women cannot show nipples on social media, so [MACMA] couldn’t teach people to do breast examinations.”

The agency’s solution? “Henri, who had big boobs,” combined with the hands of a woman whose breasts were forbidden to see, to teach people to perform examinations. “We are told there are discussions on Facebook today about how when there are health reasons, they will lift the censorship, which they should be doing,” Casal said.

Step 4: Call your lawyers.

“This is serious,” Peña said with appropriate gravity. “We spend more time talking to our lawyers than talking to our wives and girlfriends. It’s about being in constant contact, letting [lawyers] know you know their struggles so they will help you. Lawyers are the only reason we’re standing here and not rotting in a jail cell in Miami.”

“When you pressure a lawyer, they can get really creative,” Casal quipped.

Step 5: Deploy the attack and disrupt.

Remember that time Burger King created an ad that “talked” to Google Home, resulting in a hilarious wave of home devices that spontaneously quoted Wikipedia’s definition of “Whopper,” followed by a gleeful spree of people updating Wikipedia so devices nationwide would say massively trolly things, followed by Google’s software update to neutralize the ad’s effect, followed by Burger King’s decision to re-dub the ad so it would work again?

Of course you do!

“Lots of newspapers were like oh Burger King, massive fail!” Machado said, recalling the flurry of Wikipedia updates for “Whopper.”

He continued: “We knew that would happen; we’re not stupid! But our brand is a fun brand. We’d rather people have fun than be control freaks about everything.”

He went on, “But people were going out of their way, logging in on Wikipedia, changing the description of the Whopper and playing the video to themselves. That’s engagement. We love that.” He even has his own favorite among that string of bad Whopper descriptions: “Including medium-sized child.”

Ultimately, Wikipedia blocked updates to the Whopper’s description, “Which is what we wanted,” Machado revealed. “Wikipedia did ask us to apologize publicly… and they did ban our head of accounts, Carmen, from Wikipedia. So Carmen, no more Wikipedia for you.”

“Then Google blocked us,” Peña recalled. “They sent a patch to their 700,000 devices so it wouldn’t respond to our ad. And we freaked the fuck out! We didn’t know what to do … and had two hours to find a solution,” which was simple enough—the ad was rerecorded at a different pitch, with a woman’s voice, and it started working again.

“These three morons standing here managed to beat an army of coders,” Peña boasted. “Goes to show when you’re playing the hackvertising game, you need to be quick and reactive. When you’re doing things that haven’t been done before, you don’t know what’s going to happen. That’s part of the beauty.”

“This isn’t rocket science,” Machado added, and the results of being willing to take such risks, both calculated and fearless, speak for themselves. Over the past four years, Burger King’s enjoyed 30 billion impressions and $400 million in earned media, per Casal, who added, “Seriously, we’re talking $300,000 of earned media for a brand per day. It’s huge. So taking a risk is totally worth it.”

“$400 million in four years is probably one of the biggest hacks in the history of hacking,” Peña beamed. “If only we had that money in our bank accounts.”

A bonus lesson? Do what you’re afraid of.

“That’s bullshit,” Machado snapped. “We are afraid all the fucking time. The difference is, we do things even when we are afraid. Fear is part of the journey. That’s what hackvertising is all about.”

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