The Inside Story of the Burger King Campaign That Changed the Brand's Entire Outlook on Marketing

Global CMO Fernando Machado shares the long road to Whopper Detour and its 37:1 ROI

Learn how the creator economy is transforming the marketing landscape, and how to cultivate partnerships to grow engaged communities at Social Media Week: The Creatorverse, May 16–18 in NY. Register now to secure your early bird pass.

In the past few years, Burger King built a reputation for itself. I believe our brand has mastered the art of using creativity to get people’s attention and build brand love.

McWhopper, Google Home of the Whopper and Burning Stores—among many others—were talked about everywhere, achieved billions of impressions, helped revamp the brand and were celebrated by our industry. Surely many of our blockbuster campaigns drove traffic (bringing people to restaurants) and sales, but the main focus of most of them was to “make the brand cool again.”

That’s why we see Whopper Detour as a defining moment for our brand. There is a clear “before” and an “after” when it comes to Whopper Detour. This campaign marks a turning point in our marketing and shows what we believe the future of great creativity might be—at least for us. A future where creativity is only used for (and celebrated for) responding to real, tangible business and brand goals.

This campaign was an idea that played with technology that is not necessarily new. Geofencing and mobile order and payment have been around for a while. It’s also not easy to convince people to download mobile apps from fast-food brands, especially burger chains. Many brands, including ourselves, couldn’t get people to download their apps even when giving products away. Yet Whopper Detour increased the BK mobile app sales by three times during the nine-day promotion and by two times ever since the promotion ended. This campaign catapulted BK’s app from a modest No. 686 in the app store to No. 1 across all categories, on both iOS and Android. It also drove the highest foot traffic—people coming to the restaurant—in 4.5 years.

So, the question is: How the hell did that happen?

Navigating to Whopper Detour

This is the story of a crazy idea that delivered real business results. Scratch that—insane business results. An idea that bent the rules of direct marketing, experiential and ecommerce/technology. An idea with scale and long-term impact.

This case not only shows the power of a big idea and what it takes to make something different happen but also the reason why our creative partners (aka advertising agencies) are so relevant. Big creative ideas eat programmatic, AI, trends and even a beautifully put together McKinsey presentation for lunch. And these days, people seem to forget that.

The big idea is where our industry should focus. We used the art of creativity to get people’s attention, build brand love and build our business today and tomorrow in scale. This was not a one-location, one-day stunt that gets people to talk about it—especially industry people—but is not linked to results. When we celebrate ideas like this one, we show that our advertising and creativity industries can indeed have a bright future and will be able to continue to have fun and make great business. And that’s the main reason we wrote this case study and are sharing it.

If you don’t have time to read this entire piece (which would be a shame!), at least watch this:

Whopper Detour is one of my favorite Burger King ideas ever.

It took us about a year to make. The idea came to us from FCB New York and evolved a lot over time—a characteristic we see in all of our best campaigns. It involved a large team to pull it off, including our technology team and key tech partners. We basically had to recode our newly updated mobile app with mobile order and payment to now also work well and consistently with geofencing.

In fact, to make this idea work, we had to geofence all our restaurants in the United States (more than 7,000) and all of the McDonald’s restaurants (more than 14,000). Plus, we had to make it reliable. Can you imagine the amount of time and pressure to make this happen? But it paid off. Big time.

We are investing a lot to improve our guest services at Burger King, and technology has a key role in this. After all, mobile has grown to be a vital player in the QSR space, poised to be a $38 billion industry by next year, per QSR Magazine. But mobile ordering and payment aren’t new to people, nor is geofencing.

So to get people to actually care about our BK app is a testament to the beauty of this campaign, which started with a very simple PR headline: “You will be able to order a Whopper for 1 penny at McDonald’s.” Wait, what? That’s kind of a mindfuck. A Whopper at McDonald’s? That’s the exact opposite of what most direct marketing campaigns aim to achieve. You are asking people to go to your competitor before coming to you.

That’s turning brand experience upside down. And that’s showing how technology plus creativity can open new doors for brands and businesses. And while it is admittedly a bit crazy, that tends to be an ingredient in all our best ideas.

The objective of this article is to share part of our journey in making Whopper Detour happen. By doing so, we aim to showcase the power of teamwork and creativity to drive brand and business results.

The extra mile

It was the beginning of September, back in 2017. FCB New York and Waze (their partner) reached out to us to share an idea. The starting point/insight revolved around the fact that Burger King has significantly fewer restaurant locations than McDonald’s. And since in the U.S. most of the revenue comes from the drive-thru, it’s fair to say that quite often BK fans have to drive longer distances to get their flame-grilled Whoppers.

So the idea was to reward these folks who are going “the extra mile” to enjoy Burger King, literally earning a discount for passing McDonald’s on their way.

A brief description from the original presentation about how it would work.

The presentation was pretty complete, with an overview on how to expand on the idea at different touchpoints, ranging from social media to out-of-home. It was presented as an idea that would trigger headlines and conversations, both highly desirable outcomes in all of our successful Burger King campaigns.

The presentation’s mockup of social, outdoor and PR extensions

At the time, we thought there was something really interesting around the idea. We never played with geolocation before, and a partnership with Waze sounded like a cool thing to do. Also, despite the fact that drive-thru is indeed our most important channel, we haven’t really done any drive-thru ideas in the recent past.

With that said, when comparing the “voltage” of the idea with other ideas in our pipeline, we felt that there were other things that had the potential to drive stronger talkability and PR. So, we decided to provide feedback, which was pretty much: “There is something here that we like. Let’s keep working on it.”

A new spin: “The Secret Whopper”

I think if I were a creative working at an agency, “Let’s keep working on it” would be one of the phrases that would scare me the most. What does that mean? Does the client really like it? Or are they just killing us softly? I would think that “Let’s keep working on it” probably means the end.

Well, not in this case.

One thing we’ve learned in the work we do at Burger King is that many times we hit the right territory but the idea is not quite right yet. In fact, I can think of many territories that took us more than a year to connect to the right idea. And in some cases, even more than that or never at all. We don’t have an issue shooting an idea dead if we don’t think it has legs. So, when we say “Let’s keep working on it,” we mean it. But neither FCB N.Y. nor Waze had worked with us before, and I am sure that there was uncertainty about a potential positive outcome coming out of this.

Believe it or not, FCB N.Y. continued to work on it. The talented team lead by Ari Halper and Gabriel Schmitt kept thinking, playing with and polishing the idea. I guess they believed in it so much that they glanced over the uncertainty and kept pushing. So around mid-November, two to three months after the first presentation, we got an email from Gabriel saying they “changed something on the idea and now it was waaaaaaaay better” (that’s how Gabriel speaks when he believes in something). I had a meeting in New York during that week, so I decided to stop by FCB N.Y. and take a look at that “waaaaaaaay better” version of the idea.

So, the new version of the idea was called “The Secret Whopper.” The insight of the idea was pretty much the same. The first page of the presentation said:

Burger King has significantly fewer stores than McDonald’s,
so we’re not always the closest option.

How do we turn fewer stores into an opportunity and
reward drivers willing to go the extra mile for a better burger?

By turning our competitor’s stores into ours.

That was the genesis of “The Secret Whopper: A Special Whopper Available Only at McDonald’s.” Wait. What? Yes, that’s what they proposed. And we loved it.

FCB N.Y. also suggested a simple flow for the idea using our BK mobile app.

A BK mobile app flow for “The Secret Whopper” concept

The agency also presented a series of additional assets to help bring the idea to life.

Example of a potential billboard execution for “The Secret Whopper” idea

The idea clearly had evolved a lot. And the agency managed to tap into something that was very important for the brand: the mobile app. Remember that originally this was an idea that would happen mostly on the Waze platform.

Taking tech seriously

At Burger King, we are investing a lot in technology to improve guest services, and the mobile app is a key pillar in our strategy.

If you think about fast-food restaurants, most of them have tended to leverage the same technology and layout for decades. The drive-thru, for instance, is kind of the same as it has always been (always a bit of a struggle to get that order taken the right way). For years, the category—especially for burger chains—failed to evolve much with technology. But recently we have seen an acceleration behind initiatives around self-ordering kiosks, mobile apps, etc. The importance of technology among all fast-food players increased in the recent past, and that’s no different at BK.

Back in November 2017, our Burger King app was basically a coupon app. Oh, we also had a store locator (d’oh!). But we had ambitious plans.

We were working to develop mobile order and payment. That was a big deal for Burger King. It is really hard to code everything and make sure the app is integrated with our different point-of-sales systems (believe me; it’s a nightmare). We wanted the app to work with geolocation, which would allow for small variations in price and menu for different restaurants, a really big deal for Burger King. Yes. For Burger King. Because mobile order and payment are obviously not new. Even the guy who sells coffee next to my building in Miami has it. Everyone had it. So, this was a big deal for us and not such a big deal for the industry. That’s why the challenge was to come up with a big creative idea to make people care/share and get earned media at the app’s relaunch.

We didn’t think it should be a “Secret Whopper.” Instead, we recommended it be the regular Whopper. Why? Because our regular Whopper is our most iconic product and to sell that at McDonald’s would be the biggest WTF moment.

So, here was FCB N.Y. bringing an amazing idea to relaunch our mobile order and payment capabilities. We had only one piece of feedback: We didn’t think it should be a “Secret Whopper.” Instead, we recommended it be the regular Whopper. Why? Because our regular Whopper is our most iconic product, and to sell that at McDonald’s would be the biggest WTF moment. No need for a special build.

We also thought that the headline “You will be able to order a Whopper for 1 penny at McDonald’s” would be a bigger mindfuck and, thus, potentially get more earned media and talkability than if we were saying “Secret Whopper.” And that’s when the name of the idea changed to “Whopper Detour.”

A year later

I still remember when FCB N.Y. sent us a “Happy birthday, Whopper Detour” via email in September 2018. Yes, it took us a year to develop the idea. As I mentioned earlier, we had to recode our mobile app with order/payment plus geofencing on a massive scale and then ensure it all worked flawlessly in just one year. Most people would have given up, but we didn’t. We kept saying to ourselves: “If it were easy, someone else would have done it already. It’s a good thing this is freaking hard.”

Close to launch, the team developed a really cool film where our actors went to real McDonald’s restaurants in New York and tried explain to McDonald’s crew members at the drive-thru that they were there to get a Whopper for 1 cent.

An image presented as part of Jonathan Klein’s visual treatment

The film was shot by the very talented Jonathan Klein. We fell in love with his treatment. He simply got the tone of the brand and understood all the nuances:

“It’s important to stress that we are not making fun of the McDonald’s employees at all. Our actors asking about their Whopper orders from the BK app are delusional. Delusional people are funny. Delusional people ordering a Whopper at McDonald’s, compounded by the confusion of the McDonald’s employees, are hysterical.”

Our legal team was an intrinsic part of the development of this idea. In fact, that’s always the case. And we found a way to film this without necessarily asking for permission from our main competitor. The film had to be developed in New York for legal reasons; we would need to blur the faces of McDonald’s crew members and alter their voices a bit so they were not recognizable.

On top of using the hidden cameras in the cars, we also filmed wide shots with lenses that allowed us to capture footage from a distance. As in any production that tries to capture reality, it started out messy and then got better and better. That’s normal. And we were patient. In the end, we ended up with an amazing(and very funny film.

On top of the film, which we created for PR and social media purposes, we ran a series of mobile out-of-home units with the objective of providing photo opportunities for bystanders. The UGC pictures quickly spread online.


Another one of our favorite pieces was the print execution “Billions Swerved.” We all found it too funny not to deploy it. We had to make it happen. This is the type of execution that, despite leveraging traditional media, ends up getting a boatload of traction in social.


On top of FCB N.Y., which helped us with the campaign and UX, we had a pretty complete tech stack to launch Whopper Detour:
• Tillster: Worked with our tech team coding the BK app, including mobile order and payment.
• Radar: Geofencing used for unlocking, allowing us to tag all McDonald’s in the U.S.
• Braze: CRM vendor used to send push, email and in-app messages.
• Amplitude: Analytics tool used to calculate redemptions, measure behavior and target messages.
• mParticle: CDP used to orchestrate data between the BK app and other CRM partners.
• Branch: Linking platform used to make it easier to get to BK App.

Let’s talk results

The world ended up talking about this campaign. We reached 3.5 billion impressions with an equivalent of $40 million in earned media (per Cision and ABMC). All without a significant media investment. We only did some guerrilla marketing (out-of-home), a handful of print ads and a tiny bit of paid digital to push the film.

We didn’t have TV, radio, social media influencers or others. The investment was really minimal because we knew the idea would take off by itself.

Case in point: To kick things off, FCB wrote a single tweet, “BRB going to McDonald’s,” which came out about an hour before the campaign went live. That tweet alone racked up 65,000 likes in a matter of hours and led to an 818% increase in Twitter mentions.

We got more than 1.5 million people to download the BK app in the U.S. during the promotion, a 37.5% increase in only nine days, and more than a half million redemptions of our promo, which was more than 40 times the amount of redemptions versus our previous historical record for a digital coupon promo. And it continues to be the gift that keeps on giving. In the months that followed the promotion, we are now up by 4.5 million downloads. (All of the following figures are sourced from internal BK data.)

This direct, ecommerce, PR, integrated campaign propelled our BK app to become the No. 1 app in the Apple Store and Google Play Store, starting from No. 686 in the Apple Store and No. 464 on Google Play per App Annie, and beating out the likes of Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and YouTube. The BK app remained No. 1 in the Food and Drink category for more than 10 days on both platforms.

This idea was indeed a game-changer for Burger King. Despite the fact that the Whopper sandwiches were going for only 1 penny, the total sales value sold through the mobile app increased by three times during the promotion. And even after the promotion, we continued to sell through our mobile app two times what we used to sell before the promotion. Whopper Detour users alone will spend around $15 million more per year on the BK mobile app. Whopper Detour put our mobile app on the map, made people engage with it, and now they continue to use it.

Some skeptical people tend to challenge some of these sales results, arguing that we were selling Whopper sandwiches for a penny. But I am not talking about units sold. I am talking about total sales value. Even though we sold some Whopper sandwiches for 1 cent, the engagement was so high that people ended up buying a lot more. That’s why the business results were so strong.

To make people care, you need a big idea. An idea that plays with people’s imagination, an idea that is fun and connects people to the brand.

The reality is that we tried giving away products to people who used our mobile app before. So have Wendy’s, McDonald’s, Chick-fil-A and others. That’s the obvious thing to do when you want people to download your app.

But have you ever heard about any of those promotions? No, right? And do you know why? Because no one cares.

To make people care, you need a big idea. An idea that plays with people’s imagination, an idea that is fun and connects people to the brand. Nothing was as powerful as Whopper Detour. And that is the true value of a creative idea.

Mobile app promotions that failed to generate momentum

Think about that. We asked people to download the BK app, add their credit card info, enable geolocation, drive to a McDonald’s, order from there and drive back to a Burger King to pick up the order. And they did it. It’s the opposite of what any direct marketing campaign has ever done. It’s experiential upside down. It’s a promo that, in theory, has all the ingredients not to work. But it did.

Perhaps most importantly, this activation drove people to our restaurants. By inviting people to drive to our main competitor to get a crazy discount, we triggered the highest weekly traffic increase (traffic meaning number of people coming to our restaurants) since mid-2015.

Can you believe that? We asked people to go to McDonald’s, and we triggered the highest increase in visits to BK in the past 4.5 years. And there was no cannibalization of the Whopper in the restaurant, which shows that the people who came were actually new or lapsed customers. And they ended up buying more than just the Whopper for 1 penny.

The ROI for the campaign was 37:1. We had people seeing Burger King as a modern, savvy, interesting and fun brand.

Here are five things we learned on the journey:

Let the idea grow

Whopper Detour was not born as Whopper Detour. Not even the name. The idea was different, but the DNA of Whopper Detour was there somewhere. The ability to spot that and nurture the idea was critical for this case. Actually, in most successful cases we’ve developed, that seems to happen. “When a lion is born, it’s very easy to kill it.” Kash Sree used to always say that to me. You need to trust uncertainty and invest in the idea to make it better and better. It takes time. It takes effort. And it takes guts.

Big ideas matter

AI, AR, programmatic, machine learning, etc. are all empty buzzwords if you don’t have a big idea. A big idea will eat big budgets, celebrity endorsements and sometimes even logic for breakfast. Without big ideas, our industry is boring. Actually, without big ideas, life is kind of boring. So, learn how to spot them and invest to make them happen. Don’t compromise.

The power of fun

This is an idea that had all the ingredients not to work. We asked a lot from the user—credit card, location, space in their phones, a drive—and we gave a Whopper in return (not even free, since they paid 1 cent). But people loved it. And 1.5 million people went for it. Why the hell did that happen? Well, because it was fun. It was fun to do it. It was fun to share it. It was fun to talk about it. Never underestimate the power of fun. It can bend logic.

If it were easy, someone else would have done it

Yes, we had to geofence more than 20,000 restaurants (all BKs plus McDonald’s in the U.S.). Yes, the app had to work flawlessly, or as close to that as possible. It was a technical nightmare to make everything happen, but we never thought about giving up. It took a year to make this happen. No shortcuts. If it were easy, someone else would have done it already. So a big thank-you to FCB N.Y., who believed in us as a client. Big thank you to our tech team, who worked incredibly hard to make this happen. And a big thank you to all of our other agency partners—especially the tech ones—who helped us make this huge.

Remember the long-term benefits of an idea

We now have the location and credit card info of most of our app users. We can do a much better job in terms of CRM. We can do things such as send push notifications when a BK app user is getting close to a McDonald’s because we did all the heavy lifting as part of Whopper Detour. In fact, our assumption is that the 1.5 million downloads of Whopper Detour alone will trigger around $15 million in revenue during the first 12 months of the project.

So, despite the fact that the promo lasted for just nine days, the long-term impact of the project is truly significant.