Meet the Man Behind Burger King’s and Popeyes’ Viral Marketing Campaigns

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April 2020

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Burger King had a big announcement to make: It was removing artificial colors, flavors, and preservatives from its Whoppers. But the company was in a bind. The other burger chain had already, how shall we say, McDone the same thing. If Burger King simply ran ads pushing its fresh food, that wouldn’t have much impact. At worst, it would be seen as trailing its competitor.

What could it do to steer the conversation? Burger King’s marketing team started confabbing on WhatsApp, their chat tool of choice, where some of their most creative brainstorming takes place. That’s where they pulled in three agencies and worked out a plan. You likely saw the result: On February 19, Burger King released ads of its famous burger, now liberated from additives, rotting over 34 days — growing fuzzy and putrid with greenish, purplish mold, eventually slumping into itself (see ad further down).

Stomachs everywhere lurched. That day, Twitter mentions of Burger King more than tripled, and a week later, they were still up 22 percent over the previous seven days, according to social media analytics company Sprout Social, which crunched the data for Entrepreneur. The press went crazy, too, with coverage in Forbes, CNN, People, and The New York Times. As it turns out, nothing cuts through the fast-food noise like mold.

Related: 10 Secrets to Going Viral on Social Media

But this was just another day at Burger King HQ in Miami. The brand has become known for pushing out-there marketing campaigns that hijack the culture’s fleeting attention span and, as a result, boost business long-term. And now the same live-wire marketing is coming out of Popeyes, which, like Burger King, is owned by RBI, a fast-food parent company with $5.6 billion in revenues last year. 

The secret sauce? A Brazilian soccer nut named Fernando Machado. 

Machado, 45, is RBI’s global CMO. Since landing at Burger King in 2014, he has overseen 50 to 60 marketing campaigns a year that consistently have the right mix of timing, self-­deprecating humor, and stun power. While he’s been busy racking up marketing awards (Adweek’s Grand Brand Genius in 2018 and the Cannes Lions Creative Brand of the Year in 2019, among them), the chain’s average annual system-wide sales growth has increased to 9.28 percent, compared with 5.56 percent over the three years before his tenure.

But it’s been a long road. Born in Rio de Janeiro, Machado grew up with no interest in marketing. In fact, he’d never even heard of it. At the age of 19, he was pursuing a mechanical engineering degree and, to gain experience, took a job at a Brazilian factory where he designed laundry detergent boxes for Unilever. But when a marketing team from one of the brands arrived, he was wowed. “It was really cool because the guys were handling the business, but they also had a creative side to their work,” he recalls. “I thought maybe I’d do better there, and I definitely would have more fun.” 

Unilever eventually hired him for a marketing role, where he rose through the ranks and created many memorable projects. He became VP for Dove Skin Care during its “Campaign for Real Beauty” — a marketing effort that spanned more than a decade, celebrating people of all different body types and looks. It was a daunting task to add to the brand’s work so far, but Machado managed to bring to life a brilliant concept: A forensic artist drew the faces of several women — first according to how they each described themselves to him, and then as a stranger did. The sessions were packaged into ads in 2013, which carried the tagline “You’re more beautiful than you think.”

Related: How to Plan a Viral Marketing Campaign

Machado had made a name for himself by then, but this campaign defined him as a game changer. And yet, later that year, he felt restless. He’d been at Unilever for 18 years by then. “For the first time in my career, I was not itching to do the next thing,” he says. “And I was afraid of being stuck in my comfort zone.” He wanted a bigger challenge — to help shape a powerful brand that had become adrift. Burger King fit the bill at the time. After calling a few people he knew there, he joined as head of brand marketing. 

When he moved to Miami at the beginning of 2014, Machado knew exactly zero about the quick-service food industry. So he started reaching out to franchisees. “You can learn a lot from these guys,” he says. “They are there in the battlefield every day looking in the eyes of the guests.” He wanted to understand things like what makes burgers sell, and who the end customer is. And as he grew into his role, he kept doing it. Today, he takes a lot of formal meetings but also routinely messages franchisees and restaurant managers on LinkedIn, where he can learn about what trends and shifts they’re seeing in the stores.

He also set about building his creative team. Machado is exacting and proactive about this; he says he looks for people with “the same level of creative ambition” as him, and if he spots talent, he reaches out. When he was at Unilever, he met a young guy from a creative firm and quickly pulled him into his office to discuss a project; now that guy, Marcelo Pascoa, is Burger King’s head of marketing. In another case, Machado was already at RBI when he became impressed with an agency in Spain and tweeted the creative director saying he loved their work. He suggested they apply to do a local Burger King project. Now that guy, Pancho Cassis, is CCO of David The Agency, the brand’s leading outside firm.

Machado treats his creative team as if they’re in a nonstop jam session. Aside from messaging them on WhatsApp, he inhales Twitter 24-7. (“If you ask my wife,” says Machado, the father of a 5-year-old and an infant, “she would throw my phone into the pool.”) He also takes the jam offline. He has a standing soccer game on Thursdays against a couple of partners at Gut, the external ad agency he now uses for Popeyes. (“I hardly ever win,” he confesses.) He also hosts regular barbecues for the crew at David The Agency. And in the office, he still likes to keep it real. Despite being a corporate C-suiter, he’s always wearing a Burger King crew shirt. “I thought he was going to wear it to get married,” says Cassis. “He didn’t. But it was the joke of the wedding.”

None of this is by accident.  Machado puts the time into carefully assembling and maintaining his team for good reason: He knows he has to trust them. Because to him, good marketing has to feel risky — and to stay on top of culture, you have to make decisions fast.

Image Credit: Courtesy of Alison Brod Marketing + Communications

Machado asks his team for a lot of ideas, and he’ll say no to most of them. But everything goes through the same mental filters. “The first thing I think about is whether it has a good brand fit,” he says. “Does it fit with the values and the personality of the brand? Does it fit with the history of the brand? Does it fit with the brand position?” Then he asks if the idea meets the company’s strategic objectives — because sure, it’s a bummer to kill a great concept, but Machado looks at it this way: When his work does drive strategic business objectives, “I’ll get more funding and I’ll get more people to invest and I’ll get more support,” he says. And that means more great work.

Then, finally, he wonders: Will people talk about this? That’s crucial, because his budgets aren’t as large as some of his competitors’. So where he can’t win on paid media, he goes for human attention. “I need ideas that will have legs and that people will share on social and that will get organic media coverage,” he says.

Here’s how all that famously played out in 2017.

“I will never forget this,” says Machado. He got a call from two guys at David The Agency asking him to come over. “I was like, ‘Really? I’m in a bad mood. Do you really want me to come?’ ” Juan Javier Peña Plaza and Ricardo Casal, who made the call and since have gone on to become partners at Gut, promised to cheer him up. So Machado went.

They showed him a concept: In a 15-second television ad, a Burger King crew member would say, “OK, Google, what is the Whopper burger?” If that ad was playing in a room that had a Google Home, it would trigger the device to start robo-reading the Whopper’s Wikipedia entry. It was a clever, if not slightly annoying, way to poke fun at the rise of home voice-assistant devices.

Related: Getting Mentioned by a Media Site Isn’t Enough to Go Viral. You Need to Do This, Too.

Machado loved it. When it came out in April 2017, Google quickly blocked its smart device from answering the voice of the actor. Machado lobbed back by dubbing the ad with different voices. “We really wanted to have fun,” he says, much to the apparent amusement of many. According to internal data, the campaign got 9.3 billion impressions and $135 million in earned media. 

Other times, Machado needs a lot more convincing. Casal and Peña Plaza once presented an idea about the repeal of net neutrality, which was in the news at the time. “And I was like, ‘What the hell is that?’ ” says Machado. “I had no idea what net neutrality was.” The duo explained it — twice — and then sketched out their concept of using Whoppers to help people understand what losing democratic access to the internet would mean. 

“That’s never going to work,” Machado said.

“No, no, it is,” both Casal and Peña Plaza promised.

Machado wasn’t convinced. (“He hated the idea, like, really hated it,” recalls Casal.) Despite that, he gave them the money to go ahead and produce the ad — because the point of hiring risk-taking talent is that sometimes they know things you don’t. The spot they made showed customers grabbing their Whoppers while others are told they have to wait or pay as much as $25.99 for faster access. They released it in January 2018, and it became the most shared ad in Burger King history.

“It was one of the moments,” says Casal, “when we looked at each other and understood how much we trust in each other. There have also been times where we’re telling him, ‘No, man. This will not work.’ And we ended up trying it — and it worked because he’s also a creative. And no one knows the brand better than him.”

As Machado has gotten more daring at Burger King, he has discovered another important reason to push crazy ideas: Sometimes it can reveal even more business opportunities.

That’s what happened at the end of 2018. Burger King wanted people to download its new mobile app. Many competitors had one, so the product itself wasn’t new. Maybe Burger King could give out a free Whopper to anyone who downloaded it? Nah. “We did that. Chick-fil-A did that, Wendy’s did that, McDonald’s did that,” Machado says. “No one ever heard about any of it because people honestly don’t care.”

Related: The 5 Characteristics of Social Media Websites That Go Viral

His team came up with an insane scheme: Customers could get a Whopper for a penny on the app…but only if they ordered it while within 600 feet of a McDonald’s. Yes. They had to go to Burger King’s archrival to get the deal. “We know that our fans love a good joke,” says Machado. “And they love the idea of being part of that joke.” To pull it off, Machado orchestrated the geofencing of not only their own 7,000-plus U.S. restaurants but all the 14,000 McDonald’s locations across the country.  

The campaign got more than 1.5 million people to download the Burger King mobile app during the nine days of the promotion, which was a 37.5 percent increase. That should translate into customers spending an additional $15 million per year, the company estimates — making the ROI for the campaign about 37 to 1. “It was massive,” says Machado. “And we built intelligence with the geofencing that helps us today. Because I know when people are going to a McDonald’s, I know when people are going to a Burger King. Sometimes doing these technology moonshots can help you develop capabilities you haven’t even thought about before.” 

How does Machado come up with ideas? It’s a question he gets asked a lot. Oftentimes, he says, they come from active collaborations. “But I also have a good ability of putting a problem, or something I have to think about, somewhere on my mind — like processing that information all the time, even when I’m not thinking about it actively,” he says. And then great solutions pop up at random when he’s driving, playing soccer, or changing diapers.

But sometimes there’s no time for all that. Decisions have to be made fast.

That’s how Machado’s team made its biggest splash of 2019, after his job had expanded to also overseeing marketing for Popeyes Louisiana Kitchen. Anyone on Twitter will remember what happened: With a single tweet, Popeyes kicked off a fried-chicken-sandwich war that led to lines stretching outside stores across the country.

Here’s how it went down. The chain launched its new chicken sandwich. A week later, at 11:15 a.m. on August 19, a Popeyes marketer noticed that Chick-fil-A had tweeted a subtle putdown of the sandwich. He immediately alerted the wider team by WhatsApp — a group that included 20-something people, including Machado, the ad agency Gut, the social media agency GSD&M, and legal. Bruno Cardinali, Popeyes’ head of  marketing for North America, gathered people on the fifth floor of the company’s Miami office to think of a retort. Fifteen minutes later, thanks to GSD&M, they had it.

“Y’all good?” Popeyes tweeted back to Chick-fil-A.

And all hell broke loose. 

Related: The Best Social Media Marketing Tips for Your Specialty Food Business

“Black Twitter jumped behind this one and propelled it to a level of conversation that, honestly, I have never seen anything like in my career,” says Machado. “It was everywhere. There were restaurants that got fined because the line was so long it was disturbing other places in the region. There was a teenager who decided to register people to vote for the election because there were so many people waiting — Obama tweeted about that.” 

Popeyes sold out of chicken sandwiches in eight days. It made international headlines. The brand’s sales growth soared that quarter — 42.3 percent, compared with 6.3 percent for the previous year. And it hasn’t stopped. Already this year, Popeyes captured headlines by selling its uniforms as a trendy fashion look after fans noticed an amusing similarity to Beyoncé’s hot Ivy Park collection. Machado was thrilled, but it all happened by design. This, after all, is the result of the foundation he has laid: a risk-taking team that’s always on, and a laser focus on ideas that drive business.

It’s an addictive game, he says, and now he’ll be doing even more of it — because he’ll also be overseeing RBI’s third brand, Tim Hortons. “When an idea hits and you see everyone talking about it and the message you wanted to convey is coming across, it’s a massive high to the entire team,” says Machado. “We are always chasing that feeling.”