LISBON , PORTUGAL - 7 November 2019; Fernando Machado, CMO, Burger King, on ContentMakers Stage during the final day of Web Summit 2019 at the Altice Arena in Lisbon, Portugal. (Photo By Piaras Ó Mídheach/Sportsfile for Web Summit via Getty Images)
Fernando Machado, chief marketing director of Burger King © Sportsfile for Web Summit via Getty

Fernando Machado is not sleeping much at the moment. Burger King’s chief marketing officer is controlling multimillion dollar advertising campaigns across several global fast-food brands while leading a politically sensitive PR battle in the US “chicken sandwich wars” — a fight he is almost solely responsible for starting. He also has a newborn child.

The Brazilian-born executive is on a mission to change the way businesses think of the chief marketing officer.

“I see the role of the CMO evolving to have a much bigger impact on the company,” he says, speaking on the road while on a business trip to Louisiana.

If there is a marketing chief anywhere in the world qualified to speak on the subject, it is him. Since taking the role in 2014, Mr Machado has been celebrated within the industry for reviving the Burger King brand. The company has gone from what he once-called “shitty”, “fake advertising” with celebrities, to innovative, progressive, socially-conscious campaigns.

He has been named AdWeek’s “Grand Brand Genius” twice and last year Burger King dominated at the Cannes Lions advertising festival, where it was named Creative Brand of the Year.

Mr Machado is also pushing his teams and external recruitment agencies to focus on diversity when it comes to hiring. He says this is crucial both in appealing to younger groups of consumers and being noticed in a crowded field of leading US fast-food brands such as McDonald’s and Wendy’s.

“Diversity helps us accomplish better results. It’s the engine that drives Burger King as a brand,” he says.

Mr Machado’s revolution is not just happening at Burger King. The burger brand is part of a portfolio of fast-food restaurants owned by Restaurant Brands International (RBI), which includes Tim Hortons, a Canadian coffee and doughnut specialist, and American southern fried chicken chain Popeyes.

Last year, Mr Machado began overhauling the entire RBI portfolio, and the brands’ marketing already bears his fingerprints.

Take Popeyes. A social-media induced frenzy — propelled by fans on Twitter — led to a new fried chicken sandwich from the restaurant selling out within weeks. Mr Machado engineered a relaunch of the product geared around taunting the chicken sandwich’s main competitor.

An online video ad promoted the relaunch of the Popeyes sandwich by pointing out that rival Chick-fil-A did not open on Sundays. The chain declines to do so because of the Christian beliefs of its late founder. Chick-fil-A also has a history of opposing same-sex marriage.

Those in advertising and the restaurant business dubbed it the “chicken sandwich wars”.

“People today are talking about something online,” Mr Machado says. “Tomorrow, they’re talking about something else. In the past you’d create a campaign and spend a year to produce it, then launch, then start working on the next one to launch a year from now — that’s not how it is any more.”

The battlegrounds for Mr Machado’s war on his competitors are social media platforms such as Facebook, Instagram and Twitter. While some global brands have been wary of having their social media accounts drawn into controversy, Mr Machado craves it.

A sign posted outside Popeyes Louisiana Kitchen states that the restaurant is out of their new chicken sandwiches in New York, U.S., August 23, 2019. REUTERS/Shannon Stapleton - RC1E42019850
© Reuters

“I want to be part of the conversation,” Mr Machado says. “I want to be relevant.”

But the question facing marketing directors who deliver these types of publicity generating campaigns is whether generating viral tweets and video impressions actually drive sales and profits.

Mr Machado argues that the approach has worked so far. Same-store sales in US Popeyes stores grew 34 per cent year-on-year during the fourth quarter last year.

Mr Machado is determined to keep his chains ahead of the latest food trends.

Last year, Burger King created a partnership with start-up Impossible Foods to release a vegetarian version of the Whopper in thousands of its stores around the world. His task is now to sell meat-eaters a more sustainable alternative: a plant-based burger.

He insists it’s “not a fad”. Rather, it is a response to growing demand from what he calls “flexitarians”: “They’re not vegans or vegetarians. It’s actually people who eat beef but they’re trying to eat a bit less.”

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