5 Lessons Burger King Learned by Unleashing the Moldy Whopper


Want to future-proof your brand? Be ready to take risks—and take criticism.

A good marketeer needs to be doing two things at the same time. First, you need to drive sales. I doubt any marketeer  will last too long if the brand is tanking in sales. Second, you need to make your brand “future-proof.”

Making the brand “future-proof” requires one to create a vision about how the future will be. If you manage to get to the future first while managing the cost of that journey successfully, chances are you will capture a disproportional amount of market share in the process. Losing that race may end up being costly for your brand. In some cases, being second to something means you end up carrying a lot of cost without getting much credit for it.

I think one doesn’t need to be a marketing visionary to imagine that five to 10 years from now, people will be eating food that doesn’t contain artificial ingredients. In fact, as William Gibson once said, “The future is already here—it’s just not very evenly distributed.” So, if you look at the younger generations, you will see that the desire to eat “clean food” is much greater. At the same time, the perception of “fast food” with these same folks is much more negative.

So here is a very clear opportunity to future-proof Burger King. And to do that, we created the Moldy Whopper.
The main objective of Moldy Whopper—created through a collaboration of David Miami, Ingo and Publicis—was to start shifting the perception of Burger King’s food and, with that, increase consideration to visit our restaurants. From experience, every time we hit a home run with one of our ideas, we end up becoming more top-of-mind, which tends to help drive more visits. But that was not the main objective here, just a side effect of the scale of talkability we receive from ideas like Moldy Whopper.

Moldy Whopper surpassed all of our expectations when it comes to earned media impressions. So far, we earned around 8.4 billion organic media impressions (Sources: Verizon Media and Boxnet).

The quality of the impressions was also very strong. Key media vehicles from all around the globe covered the campaign. And despite the fact that some headlines had a sensationalist tone (classic clickbait strategy), the vast majority of the articles were very positive and clearly landed the main objective of the campaign: no artificial preservatives.

Contrary to what some articles/analyses reported, sentiment was primarily positive-neutral because of the significant volume news and editorial posts had on sites and Twitter.

We believe there is a clear reason why some articles or analyses reported a sentiment which skewed more negative than the one we are showing here. Many times, the automatic analysis created by tools commonly used to monitor sentiment have limitations with keywords which are negative in theory. We faced this issue in many of our campaigns before. For instance, when we did Bullying Jr. or Whopper Neutrality, key words like “bullying” and “repeal” were interpreted by the algorithm as negatives even when the headlines and conversations were positive.

The same happened with Moldy Whopper. That’s why our team manually categorize the most popular posts—such as highly retweeted or shared articles and posts—that would typically be categorized as negative because they include words like “moldy” or “disgusting.” By manually categorizing them, we can ensure that posts that say things like “ugly but beautiful” or “disgustingly brilliant” are categorized as positive or neutral based on the full context of the post.

The majority (74%) of total conversation occurred on Twitter followed by news channels with 13% of total conversation. The campaign garnered around 600 million potential Twitter impressions. 41% of the conversation was in the form of retweets as users shared posts either from news accounts or other Twitter users. Mentions peaked at noon on the 19th (our press embargo broke early morning that day).

It is also important to highlight that in this campaign, owned content proved to be incredibly engaging to the BK audience, exceeding all KPI benchmarks on all owned platforms. Burger King’s owned tweet was one of the major conversation drivers with about 1,600 retweets.

On Facebook, there were almost 1.4 million total minutes viewed on the Moldy Whopper video, and 39% of total viewers watched all 45 seconds of the video. We typically see users start to drop off at around 4 seconds into a video.

On Twitter, campaign tweet exceeded the organic benchmark engagement rate by 159% and the organic benchmark video view count by 187%. Paid promotion helped to boost reach, but we saw much stronger engagement through our owned audience, which is to be expected.

Instagram content saw strong performance as well, with the in-feed photo exceeding the engagement rate benchmark by 27% and the IG story exceeding benchmark by 59%.

The fact that the creative was varied across platforms also likely led to successful metrics as it helped avoid audience fatigue, which has been a factor in previous campaign performance.

Usually when we do a campaign of this magnitude, we run a quantitative analysis with a robust sample size in the key market driving the campaign (in this case, the United States). So, we leveraged YouGov to run a 2,000-plus sample size research to evaluate, among other things, level of awareness, key brand attributes, and consideration to visitation. We measure all that, comparing people who saw the campaign versus people who did not see the campaign.

The main objective of the campaign was “to start changing the perception of Burger King’s food and, with that, increase consideration to visit our restaurants.”

The level of awareness we reached with this campaign was very high. In other words, this material truly stood out and was seen by a lot of people. Just to illustrate how big Moldy Whopper was, we reached a level of awareness 50% higher than our 2019 Super Bowl campaign (“Eat Like Andy”). And our 2019 Super Bowl campaign was the most talked about, searched, and discussed campaign of the Super Bowl last year. Moldy Whopper generated a significantly larger impact than that on a fraction of the budget.

But did people get it?
The short answer is: Yep, most people did.

And that’s not surprising. Just looking at the word cloud from social media, one can clearly see words like burger, whopper, preservatives, artificial – all of which directly correlate to the message we wanted to land. The word cloud is automatically generated by Crimson Hexagon based on the opinion monitor.

It’s no wonder the awareness around Burger King having no artificial ingredients is 5x higher among people who saw Moldy Whopper than among those who didn’t see Moldy Whopper.

The combination of the level of awareness (cut-through), the clarity of the message (no artificial preservatives) and sentiment (positive-neutral) resulted in a strong impact to all brand attributes we measured.

An important, and surprising, stat: 22.8%

The main objective of the Moldy Whopper campaign was not to drive short-term sales. From my personal experience, the best way to drive short-term sales in our product category is to do a promotion (and the fast food category is filled with them) and/or to launch a new product.

On top of that (and again from personal experience), consumers tend to buy benefits/taste and not the absence of something. When I worked in fast moving consumer goods, I saw lots of product launches fail in sales because the main point communicated was the absence of something instead of the benefit offered by the product. That happened with some Knorr products (cooking aids) which removed artificial ingredients. That happened with some Dove products (body wash) which removed sulfates (harsher surfactants/ soap). Those messages helped elevate the brands, but they didn’t drive short-term sales.

No one in our office was expecting consumers to jump in the car and drive desperately to Burger King to buy a Whopper just because we removed artificial preservatives. We are doing this because it’s the right thing to do and we don’t see a future where fast food brands will have artificial preservatives. So by getting there first, we are making our brand future-proof. And, hopefully, in the long run, this will not only help with sales but mostly avoid the brand becoming irrelevant (and thus lose sales).

With that said, as part of our YouGov research we do measure “consideration to visitation”. This measure basically indicates whether people feel more inclined to visit Burger King if they saw the campaign or not. It’s usually very difficult to see a shift in campaigns which are not price pointed (promotions) or that are not offering a new product.

Moldy Whopper grew consideration to visitation by 22.8%. And that’s truly remarkable.

Sometimes, BK ideas get so much traction that, even when their main objective was not to drive short term sales, we end up seeing an increase in visitation. In a category which is so promotionally driven, raising “top of mind” a little bit can have a positive impact on visitation and thus sales. It happened in the past with campaigns like Eat Like Andy, Google Home of the Whopper, McWhopper, among others. It is still early days to report that, but it’s likely that this one has the potential to accomplish that too.

Why you need the campfire and the fireworks
One common question with Moldy Whopper is: Do you really need to go that far?
Yes, we do.

As Bill Bernbach once said, “If no one notices your advertising, everything else is academic”

And it’s not like people are craving to learn that the Burger King brand has removed artificial preservatives from its food. People have other things to do with their lives than focus on the “great things Burger King is doing.” So yes, one needs to push hard for the message to be noticed and become relevant.

Let me use an example to illustrate the point a bit better. By the end of last year, we launched a campaign called “Whopper Prank”. It was a film showing a focus group where we surprised people by serving them a Whopper while pretending it was a burger from a fancy burger place.

This is a pretty decent spot. It tested really well on Link test (short term sales likelihood above 80%). It checked all the boxes. It landed that we are removing artificial ingredients from our food. We aired this spot on TV. We aired a 30 second version of this spot on the pre-Super Bowl slot (which is expensive). We also aired the same version on the post-Super Bowl spot. Results were good. It helped sales. It helped build some of our attributes.

Have you ever seen this spot?
I doubt it.
And the media plan was decent.

Was it a failure? No. It helped the brand. But the impact of a campaign like this is relatively small. We have to do it. We will have more of that. But we need to go above and beyond. If you want to create brand reappraisal, you need the perfect storm. You need the campfire (comfortable, keeps you warm) and the fireworks (explosions). That’s an analogy I am stealing from a chat I had with Brian Collins last week. Whopper Prank is campfire. Moldy Whopper is fireworks. They work in different ways. And they are both needed.

By the way, the sentiment on the safe Whopper Prank on YouTube is 77% positive and 23% negative, which is worse than Moldy Whopper. So, what is really “safe”? Something to think about.

What we learned

To wrap this one up, I would like to reflect on what I believe to be the key things we learned that will help marketers deploy bold ideas like this one.

1. Align on the strategic objectives

I know this may sound obvious, but reality is that many organizations fail to check this box. It is critical that you define with your CEO (or boss) and the top levels of your organization (COO, CFO, Regional Presidents, etc) the key strategic objectives for your brand or company. In our case here, improving the quality of the food we serve by cleaning up the product portfolio from ingredients of artificial sources is a strategic priority. We believe real food tastes better. And if we want to continue to be successful 10 years from now, it’s imperative that we do this work and get credit for it by communicating it.

2. Clearly define what success looks like

After you align on the strategic objective, make sure you define the metrics that will be used to evaluate success of the activity. In the case of Moldy Whopper, the main objective of the campaign was to land the claim of “no artificial preservatives” in order to start shifting people’s perceptions around BK’s food quality. With that in mind, we managed to put the proper KPIs in place to evaluate results. By leveraging this method again and again, one is able to build credibility around the link between the creative approach and the results.

3. Build your credibility

Over time, our organization has become more and more comfortable with feeling uncomfortable. Pushing creative boundaries has become part of our DNA and when people started to realize that, and when done right, the approach works in a powerful way. Defining the strategic objectives and measurements will help you make the discussion less subjective. And if you manage to do it multiple times, it will become easier and easier. I mean, it will become less and less difficult (it’s never easy). One of the biggest compliments I have ever received in my career was when one of our leadership team members came to me as said, “this is a crazy idea, but I feel good about doing it because you believe in it so much”. That’s a good place to be as a marketer.

4. Dare to do something different

I can think of 1,000 reasons (or more) to argue why we shouldn’t do Moldy Whopper. We are all really smart. We can build arguments for and against anything. Who doesn’t have someone in their team who always says, “To play devil’s advocate, what if…”?

We are good at brainstorming about potential problems. So why not use a different approach?

Focus on developing your criteria. Focus on building really strong partnerships with your creative teams. And then go for it because of just one reason. And the reason is: “It’s a mind-blowing idea which perfectly fits our strategic objectives, and I can only think of one brand that can pull it off. And that brand is ours.” This should be enough of a reason to make Moldy Whopper happen.

Organizations are filled with people who can say “no” to things and lack people with conviction to pick fights to say “yes” to bold ideas. Be that “yes” person. It will be good for your brand, good for your company and good for your career. We need more “yes marketers.”

5. Grow a thick skin

This is a really important point. When you do something bold, something that stands out, people will criticize it. This will happen. It always happens—no matter how purposeful, noble or great it is.

And the criticism will show up on your boss’ newsfeed (or inbox). And maybe your boss will come and talk to you. All of that is a side effect of doing something great.

You should surely always interrogate the results, but don’t spend too much time second guessing everything (and yourself). Facing criticism is part of doing something great, something different. If everyone agreed that Moldy Whopper was good, then it was probably not that good to start with. Unfortunately, throughout my entire career, I only saw convergence of opinions with things that were flat, common, and cliché.

So if you want to aim high, get ready for criticism. It’s part of the package.

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