Burger King Wants to Change the Way Cows Eat, Reducing Emissions by 33%

The chain's research, promoted with an ad from Michel Gondry, will be made open source

Burger King
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Key insights:

Scientists have come up with a diet hack for cows that can reduce the animals’ methane emissions by more than a third, and Burger King will be the first brand to sell the better-for-the-planet beef, starting today.

Spoiler: A small dose of lemongrass leaves does the trick, cutting bovine emissions by 33% a day, according to research that the chain and its parent company, Restaurant Brands International, will make public and offer free to any company that wants it.

The open-source approach is “a rallying cry” for others to jump on the sustainability bandwagon and begin to tackle a major source of environmental damage, said RBI global CMO Fernando Machado.

“This process is about collaboration and sharing, and it’s not a stunt. It’s a real, long-term commitment."
—Fernando Machado, global CMO, RBI

One fast food brand alone, even with Burger King’s worldwide footprint, would be “a drop in the ocean” considering the magnitude of the problem, he said, but the work wasn’t meant to be kept secret or used solely for its PR value.

“This process is about collaboration and sharing, and it’s not a stunt. It’s a real, long-term commitment,” Machado said. “We’re crazy enough to believe we can inspire the whole industry to adopt this change. That would trigger a concrete, significant impact.”

Livestock are responsible for nearly 14.5% of greenhouse gas emissions globally, releasing methane as a byproduct of their digestion, according to the United Nations’ food and agriculture group. Previous experiments have found that altering their diet can help, and substances like Australian seaweed have shown promise, but lemongrass leaves are more plentiful and cheaper, Machado said.

BK plans to offer the methane-light burgers starting Tuesday across five states, though at only a single location each in Los Angeles, Portland, Austin, Miami and New York.

Getting colorful, fun and informative via Michel Gondry

To let consumers know about the limited-time Whoppers, the brand is launching a folksy, color-saturated music video directed by Oscar winner Michel Gondry and featuring a singing kid cowboy turned viral star—Mason Ramsey, the Walmart warbler also known as “Lil Hank Williams.”

The 2-minute spot, from agency We Believers, rounds up a bunch of farting, burping cows (wood and foam models, not the real thing), tosses in a dash of Busby Berkeley and ends at a near-future amusement park called Low Carbon Land with a cow carousel and a Whopper roller coaster. Choreography pro Mandy Moore handles the dance sequences, while the catchy theme song turns an unappetizing issue—um, cow “splatter”—into a toe-tapping ear worm.

Yes, there’s yodeling. And bedazzled gas masks.

The tagline of the video, which was shot pre-pandemic in L.A.: “Since we’re part of the problem, we’re working to be part of the solution.”

“We wanted a video that represented a solution,” said Gustavo Lauria, agency co-founder and CCO, who co-wrote the lyrics. “And it’s optimistic and positive.”

The ad breaks down the situation so anyone can grasp it, avoiding scientific jargon and not turning it into “a chemistry class” about climate change, said Machado, who likened it to the awards darling Moldy Whopper campaign in its sensibility.

A behind-the-scenes video walks viewers through some of the creative details, including the eco-aware set and props. The cotton used to represent cow farts, for instance, was made with natural, not synthetic, materials.

A partnership on a sustainable journey

BK’s Earth-friendly program has been in the works for nearly two years, when execs at We Believers learned about reduced-emission research happening at the Autonomous University in Mexico. They routed the info to Machado, who met with scientists there and started discussing options that would be affordable and scalable.

Instead of a typical client-agency relationship, Burger King and We Believers worked closely on each step of the project, dubbed “Cow’s Menu,” Lauria said.

Researchers at the University of California at Davis joined the initiative, which found that adding 100 grams (about half a cup) of lemongrass leaves a day to cows’ diets had the desired effect without stunting the cattle’s growth or harming their health.

RBI execs are already working with their meat suppliers in the U.S. and beyond, specifically Latin America and Europe, to adopt the new ingredient. They plan a second phase of conversations with competitors and other food brands.

The burgers taste and cost the same, though initially they’ll be pricier for the chain to produce. Eventually, the brand’s costs will decrease as the program scales, Machado said.

@TLStanleyLA terry.stanley@adweek.com T.L. Stanley is a senior editor at Adweek, where she specializes in consumer trends, cannabis marketing, meat alternatives, pop culture, challenger brands and creativity.