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

Letters on a Burger King sign are being put up; The sign says, "Billions Served;" In the bottom a title says "The Whopper Detour
FCB New York's Whopper Detour was a year in the making and redefined the potential of a creative idea.
Burger King

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.

Two side by side white iPhones. On the left is step 1 for the Whopper Detour; on the right is step 2.
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.

Three side-by-side images: The first is of a Facebook post that shows a picture of Waze and the Whopper Detour; second is a billboard that says 'Extra Miles'; last is a screenshot of an article describing what the Whopper Detour is.
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.

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