3 Years, 3 Agencies: The Weird Road to Burger King’s Moldy Whopper

CMO Fernando Machado explains the counterintuitive concept's path from pitch to reality

A Whopper grows mold in time-lapse footage
The Moldy Whopper has been well received in social media, Burger King says.
Burger King

When two agencies pitch a similar idea, how does a brand handle it? What about three agencies? Oh and also, what if the idea is really, really weird and potentially toxic for your brand?

While many marketers likely would pit their vendors against each other in a high-stress competition to see who would come out on top with the best (not to mention safest and cheapest) execution, Burger King instead went an unexpected direction.

All three agencies would get the credit.

That shared parentage is only one of the many odd aspects of Burger King’s Moldy Whopper, which launched today to promote the brand’s pledge against artificial preservatives—and quickly became one of the most debated marketing campaigns in recent memory.

Luckily for the brand, it’s a gamble that seems to be paying off, at least in terms of initial response. Fernando Machado, global CMO of Burger King, says his team’s been watching the real-time reactions to the Moldy Whopper in social media and has been pleased to find audiences receptive to the strange premise.

“People are smarter than some think,” Machado told Adweek today. “We are monitoring social media response and press, and it’s largely positive. In social, the preliminary read is that it’s more than 95% positive or neutral, and it’s a very small minority who’ve reacted negatively to the campaign.”

The creative premise—taking pride in the fact Burger King’s Whopper now degrades naturally thanks to the recent removal of artificial preservatives—is one that most fast food brands would never have allowed out of the pitch room.

But Burger King’s willingness to embrace both the counterintuitive concept and the three agencies that independently pitched it highlights how the brand has evolved in recent years to become one of the industry’s boldest marketers and a champion of its many agency partners.

Machado said the concept required patience on two fronts: First, waiting for Burger King’s products to be slowly tweaked over five years to the point where the chain could say it was ready to remove all artificial preservatives and other additives from its food (a process it says will be completed in the U.S. by the end of this year). Second, such a bold concept requires a proven track record of successful, boundary-pushing creative, which Burger King has definitely racked up over the past few years.

"Today we're more comfortable with being uncomfortable."
—Fernando Machado,
global CMO, Burger King

“I probably have less scars over my body than the whole team would have had five or six years ago,” Machado says, laughing about how The Moldy Whopper likely would have been a tougher sell internally before Burger King stretched its wings with hit campaigns like Whopper Detour.

“We created a path to be more comfortable with work that is bold and challenges the rules of advertising,” he told Adweek today. “We have done things that were very bold before—Burning Stores, Proud Whopper—that are very out of the norm for our industry and require a lot of explaining to bring people along with you internally.

“Today we’re more comfortable with being uncomfortable.”

Burger King

Getting in position for decomposition

Machado says the campaign that would become The Moldy Whopper began about three years ago, as the brand was getting serious with its efforts to remove artificial additives from its food.

Frequent agency partner David approached Machado about a campaign centered on the idea that, without artificial preservatives to prevent nature from taking its course, Burger King’s food would, you know, rot. While food “going bad” is understandably avoided in food advertising, David felt it could be conveyed as a positive sign of a more natural product.

Machado was intrigued but felt the idea had come too early in the chain’s logistically complex process of removing additives from its supply chain.

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This story first appeared in the April 13, 2020, issue of Adweek magazine. Click here to subscribe.

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