One of 2020’s most lauded campaigns is the Moldy Whopper, an ad that shows Burger King’s signature sandwich literally rotting over the span of a month. The buzzy stunt, brought to life with help from three agencies, was created to promote the Whopper’s lack of artificial ingredients and preservatives.
At this year’s Brandweek, Fernando Machado, global chief marketing officer of Restaurant Brands International (the company that owns Burger King, as well as Popeyes and Tim Hortons), discussed how he’s helped the fast-food chain adopt bolder, more attention-grabbing marketing tactics.
He was joined by Peter Giorgi, chief marketing officer of Celebrity Cruises, and Cadillac chief marketing officer Melissa Grady, who also shared a few tips for success.
Take baby steps toward your big leap
Burger King’s Moldy Whopper was shocking, even repulsive. But it was firmly on-brand for the fast-food chain, which for years has colored outside the lines with its advertising—remember when it tried to explain net neutrality using burgers?
Machado said the Moldy Whopper couldn’t have happened overnight. In fact, he said it took years for Burger King to rid the Whopper of artificial preservatives, a key aspect of the campaign. Plus, he said the brand spent years paving the way for such a stunt with smaller, less risky (but still boundary-pushing) campaigns to firm up the brand’s personality. For instance, to promote its flame-grilled burgers, the chain created a series of print ads a few years ago that showed actual Burger King locations catching on fire.
Essentially, Machado advised marketers to play the long game if they’re truly interested in bolder advertising.
“Start small. Do one thing. See the result,” he advised. “Sometimes you’re going to get it right, and sometimes you’ll get it wrong. If you get it wrong, be humble and learn from that. Do it better next time.”
You can’t have your cake and eat it too. Any ad that actually breaks through and gets people talking will likely receive backlash as well.
Giorgi learned that the hard way in 2016. During a presidential debate, Celebrity Cruises aired an ad that encouraged viewers to “Sail Beyond Borders,” a not-so-subtle reference to Donald Trump’s border wall. Giorgi said the brand thought the ad would go over well, but it proved to be divisive. According to Giorgi, he received death threats on Twitter afterwards.
“The blowback was real,” he said. “I should have seen the results of the election coming from the response to this ad from certain parts of the population.”
However, he said the experience put the brand on a braver, more “purpose-driven” path. It later secured a partnership with the Malala Fund, the education nonprofit found by Malala Yousafzai, the youngest Nobel Peace Prize winner.
“You need to have the guts to do brave work, but you need to be ready for possibilities that may be unexpected,” Giorgi said.
Know your audience
When Grady joined Cadillac last year as chief marketing officer, she used her background in data to help the brand rethink its ad targeting methods.
Instead of trying to reach a typical luxury car consumer—say, someone between the ages of 25 and 54 within a certain income bracket—she opted for a “bottom-up” approach that involved using first-party data to identify the attributes of a Cadillac buyer. According to Grady, this helped the automaker find people who are 19 times more likely to buy a Cadillac in the future than any other luxury vehicle.