It may not have the body count of Game of Thrones, but Burger King’s increasingly epic marketing battle with McDonald’s has become one of the most-watched rivalries in the advertising world.
Since global CMO Fernando Machado joined Burger King in 2014, he has been escalating the chain’s fiery approach to its largest rival, and thanks to his relationship with a worldwide roster of innovative agencies, he’s been able to turn his brand’s light-hearted barbs into globally celebrated marketing and PR campaigns.
As Burger King sparked another round of global media attention with its newest campaign for clown-free birthdays, we decided to look back at the seven campaigns that have truly defined Burger King’s modern approach to trolling McDonald’s (along with one bonus case study that shows Burger King can also play nice once in a while).
Machado says Burger King’s campaigns targeting McDonald’s have been a two-pronged success: Boosting sales while also showing the brand’s personality. The key, he said, is poking the bear without hitting below the belt.
“Many of our ideas have been incredibly effective at building brand love and driving business results,” Machado tells Adweek. “It’s all about the tone of the brand. Our tone is fun, lighthearted, and self-deprecating. We like having fun, and we can take a joke at the same time. That in my view is a condition for you to be able to poke fun at others. We don’t do things that are mean-spirited or that can come across as bullying. Fast food is a fun occasion. And as a challenger brand, we try to be the fun brand in a fun product category.”
Here’s a chronological look back at seven campaigns where Burger King brought the fire:
Agency: Y&R New Zealand
Results: $138 million in earned media, 8.9 billion media impressions, 2016 Cannes Lions Grand Prix in Media and Grand Prix in Print, 2017 Grand Effie
When does a peace offer set off a years-long war? In the case of Burger King and its quasi-obsession with needling McDonald’s, the answer is 2015. That’s when Burger King penned an open letter to its largest rival in a New York Times ad, asking to come together on International Peace Day and create a McWhopper, with all proceeds going to a nonprofit advocating for peace. McDonald’s politely declined, but the proposal sparked massive global attention and even led other, smaller burger chains to join the cause and partner with BK.
Nearly 9 billion media impressions later, Burger King and agency Y&R New Zealand took home the Grand Prix in Media at the 2016 Cannes Lions along with the Grand Prix in Print, and a spark was lit that would largely define some of Burger King’s best advertising in the years ahead. While sales results weren’t released publicly, the campaign did win the coveted Grand Effie for effectiveness, typically seen in the industry as a benchmark of business success beyond publicity. (By the way, if you want to see Adweek’s own attempt at creating a McWhopper, you can see the resulting abomination here.)
Scary Clown Night (2017)
Agency: LOLA MullenLowe
Results: More than 110,000 clowns receiving free Whoppers, 15% global sales increase, 21% increase in foot traffic, 2.1 billion earned impressions, $22.4 million in earned media value, Cannes Lions gold Lion in Outdoor
As the 2017 version of Stephen King’s It terrified its way to being the highest-grossing horror movie in history, with an astounding $700 million at the global box office, Burger King leveraged this revived worldwide fear of clowns into a simple and biting promotion: Scary Clown Night. On Halloween, Burger Kings around the world would give free Whoppers to anyone who came dressed as a clown.
What’s especially fascinating about Scary Clown Night is that it began as a simple conversation on Whatsapp between Burger King’s Machado and LOLA MullenLowe ECD Pancho Cassis. What began as a fun local idea quickly spiraled, thanks to Machado’s enthusiasm, into a global campaign—one that, having been pitched at the beginning of October, had to be assembled in mere weeks. It proved a point that would be made time and again in the years to come: Burger King doesn’t care where your agency is or how the client-agency relationship began, as long as the ideas are good enough to go global.
Agency: David Miami
Results: Cannes Lions silver Lion in Print
Burger King loves fire. Sometimes maybe too much. But that love of flame grilling doesn’t always manifest in the most dramatic ways. Sometimes the brand takes a more subtle approach in scorching its competitors, with the best example being David Miami’s McMansions print campaign in the U.S. Three ads featured seemingly innocuous real estate photos of luxurious back patios, and only a close review would show the viewers what they were looking at: mansions formerly owned by McDonald’s execs. And each one, unlike a McDonald’s location, had a grill.
While it wasn’t one of the most massive campaigns the brand pulled off, there was one other important distinction with McMansions: it was generated through the brand and agency partnership with Miami Ad School, where students were tasked with coming up with a campaign from three core briefs Burger King also issued to its formal agencies worldwide: “Flame-grilling since 1954,” “Whopper Love” and “Your Way.” The McMansions concept was born from that student collaboration and left Machado feeling energized about giving more opportunities to rising industry talent.
Whopper Detour (2018)
Agency: FCB New York
Results: 3X sales increase through mobile app during promotion, 2X increase sustained after, 2019 One Show Best in Discipline in Experiential and Immersive
Burger King has obviously poked quite a bit of fun at McDonald’s over the years, but this one was absolutely savage. Whopper Detour offered Burger King fans a 1-cent Whopper coupon—but you had to get within 600 feet of a McDonald’s location to unlock it. Created by FCB New York, the campaign was a massive hit both in terms of PR and in driving downloads of Burger King’s smartphone app. The app was downloaded more than 1 million times in the days after the campaign’s launch, and it rose to the No. 1 rank on the Apple App Store.
“Whopper Detour increased BK total sales through our mobile app by 3X during the promotion,” Machado tells Adweek. “And sales continued as 2X versus before after the campaign was over. Some skeptical people tend to challenge these 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.”
Machado admits that, while he loves all of Burger King’s snarky campaigns in recent years, he’s especially fond of Whopper Detour.
“I love McWhopper, Scary Clown Night and Birthdays Should Be Happy, but I think Whopper Detour is probably my all-time favorite. Whopper Detour leveraged technology, a big idea, and our tone of voice to drive amazing business and brand results,” he says. “Whopper Detour turned one of our weaknesses into a strength. McDonald’s has around double the number of restaurants we have in the US. By geofencing more than 14,000 McDonald’s locations and allowing people to order a Whopper for a penny from there, we kind of turned their restaurants into Burger King restaurants.”
The Not Big Macs (2019)
Agency: Ingo Stockholm
Results: None yet released
When McDonald’s abruptly and surprisingly lost its trademark on “Big Mac” in the EU earlier this year, Burger King couldn’t help but rub some salt in the wound. Its Swedish operations decided to celebrate for a day by offering a menu of “Not Big Macs” such as “The Like a Big Mac, But Actually Big” and “The Big Mac-ish But Flame Grilled of Course.”
Burn That Ad (2019)
Agency: David Sao Paulo
Results: None yet released
This one didn’t target McDonald’s specifically per se, but it was still a great example of how (as in Whopper Detour) Burger King uses its competitors own resources and locations against them. Burn That Ad was a Brazilian campaign that used AR to let fans “burn” another chain’s advertisement, thereby unlocking a coupon for a free Whopper in the Burger King app.
“Augmented reality is a fascinating tool. And when combined with a little pyrotechnics, is even better,” Rafael Donato, vp and creative director at David Sao Paulo, told Adweek when the campaign launched. “With ‘Burn That Ad,’ we hacked the competition by leveraging our biggest advantage, which is fire.”
Birthdays Should Be Happy (2019)
Agency: LOLA MullenLowe
Results: None yet released
Burger King’s Scary Clown Night hit just as It was blowing up in theaters, so is it a coincidence that this campaign rolled out as the premiere of It: Chapter 2 was nigh? In this print campaign, the agency behind the brand’s earlier scary-clown stunt returned with real photos of children looking terrified in the arms of a birthday party clown.
“Burger King knows that birthdays are a very big deal for kids, and we believe they should be fun and clown-free,”Marcelo Pascoa, Burger King’s head of global marketing, said of the campaign. “We prefer to be on the good side of children’s memories, not the scary ones, like the traumatized kids in these ads.”
The ads encouraged viewers to book a “clown-free party” at a local Burger King instead of … unnamed places known for their clowns.
This newest campaign has once again been described as Burger King “trolling” McDonald’s, and while that’s typically said as a compliment to the brand’s savvy for modern marketing, it’s also true that a troll is typically not seen as a positive force on the internet.
So how does Machado feel about all these “Burger King trolls McDonald’s again” headlines?
“If by ‘trolling’ you mean not taking life too seriously and trying to have fun with a competitor,” he says, “I am all good with it.”
Bonus: Day Without a Whopper
Agency: David Buenos Aires
Results: Warm hearts, peace in our time
Need a palate cleanser from all the negativity above? Then let’s end by revisiting “Day Without a Whopper,” the earnestly heartwarming campaign in which, for one day, all 107 Argentine Burger Kings declined to sell Whoppers and sent customers to McDonald’s. Why? Because it was the one day on which local McDonald’s locations would donate proceeds from Big Mac sales to a children’s cancer charity. It just goes to show, sometimes Burger King can use its trolling powers for good.