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  • Why is trolling sometimes a smart tactic for brands?
  • Why is trolling sometimes a smart tactic for brands?
    Carles Rabada (2018) ©

Whopper Detour: tech-aided trolling feeds burger wars

Burger King’s ‘Whopper Detour’ campaign, created by FCB New York, saw the fast food chain take its rivalry with McDonald’s up a notch, effectively using the latter’s stores as sales locations. Through its use of geofencing, BK showed how a simple coupon activation can break the internet.

Location United States

“I’m at McDonald’s, about to get a coupon for Burger King. I almost feel like I’m stealing,” exclaims one customer into his phone while waiting in the former chain’s parking lot. [1] He was just one of the 1.5 million Americans who downloaded the BK app to unlock a 1-cent Whopper – provided they went to a McDonald’s location. Created by FCB New York, the ‘Whopper Detour’ campaign won the Direct Grand Prix at the 2019 Cannes Lions Festival and earned 3.5 billion media impressions, all while demonstrating how a simple coupon activation can break the internet. [2]


As part of the initial pitch to Burger King, FCB NY pointed out that the fast food chain has significantly fewer branches than McDonald’s, so it isn’t always the closest option for hamburger hounds. “How do we turn fewer stores into an opportunity and reward drivers willing to go the extra mile for a better burger?” asked the agency. The answer was to digitally hijack its competitor’s restaurants and use an irresistible bargain to divert customers. The resulting campaign saw Burger King geofence all of its 7,000 US outlets and all McDonald’s restaurants (of which there are more than 14,000). It then invited people to download an app, drive within 600 feet of a McDonald’s, order a Whopper for a cent, and pick it up at the nearest BK. During the promotional period in December 2018, Burger King’s mobile sales jumped three-fold and sales remained twice as high as normal once it had ended. [3]

Although a 2017 study revealed that 53% of fast food app users claim it’s more convenient to order through a phone than through employees, while 50% say it’s easier to pay, convincing people to download something from a fast food brand is difficult. [4] “Many, including ourselves, couldn’t get people to download their apps – even when giving their products away,” says Fernando Machado, the global CMO of Burger King. [3] But not only did the Whopper Detour get people to rehearse the action of ordering via the app and picking up in-store, the $0.01 price (rather than free) meant they had to give their payment details, making a full-price repeat purchase easier later on. “It was a coupon. You can’t get more direct than that,” said Cannes Lions juror Robin Fitzgerald, the CCO of BBDO Atlanta. “But it was done in a way that, culturally, was right at the moment and the way people were behaving. It was relevant. It was done in the spirit of the brand, that challenger spirit that Burger King has displayed year after year.” [2]

The Whopper Detour's success was built on BK’s underdog appeal
Creativity - Cannes Lions (2019) ©

The Burger Wars’ first broke out in the late ‘70s when Burger King publicly attacked the size of McDonald's hamburgers in its marketing. Since then, the two giants have regularly jousted at each another, but BK’s campaigns have often escalated the stakes. In 2015, it targeted McDonald’s superfans in Brazil, convincing them to get the King Burger tattooed on their bodies. [5] In 2017, its #NeverTrustAClown campaign mocked Ronald McDonald as it offered free Whoppers to the first 500 people dressed as clowns at Burger King’s flagship London store. [6] A further jab in 2019, again targeting the Brazilian market, encouraged users to ‘burn’ the ads of rivals using an augmented reality app. The ‘Burn That Ad’ video spot showed an inferno that consumed McDonald’s ads to reveal a coupon for a free Whopper.

“The Whopper Detour campaign reminds people that Burger King and McDonald’s are competing companies, and that in a marketplace that’s busier than ever, those two are the originals,” says Rich Leigh, the founder and director of Radioactive PR. But why does an intense brand rivalry strike a chord with people? “The David and Goliath story has stood the test of time because people enjoy seeing somebody take a smart approach to a bigger problem or opportunity and coming out on top,” Leigh adds. [7] Samsung adopted a similar strategy in the smartphone space when it began waging a war of comparative advertising with Apple in 2012. By 2017, when it created a campaign that implied its Galaxy device was a more ‘grown-up’ version of an iPhone, the Korean brand had knocked Apple off the top spot in terms of US market share.

With research from 2017 suggesting that 65% of Americans skip online video ads and a separate Deloitte report estimating that 80% of North American adults use at least one ad blocking tool, brands can no longer rely on traditional marketing methods to grab attention. [8][9] It’s becoming more and more important to explore unusual and interesting ways of engaging consumers, and geofencing – a market that’s projected to be worth $2.3 billion by 2023 – offers one potential avenue. [10] “The Whopper Detour uses technology that’s been usable for many years – the team behind it just cracked a way to use it in a way that didn’t feel forced,” says Leigh. [7] Dunkin’ Donuts also reaped the benefits of geofencing through its personalized Snapchat filter, which could only be accessed in-store or via the ‘Snap to Unlock’ feature. The one-day campaign for National Donut Day helped the brand gain ten times more followers than its monthly average. [11]

80% of North Americans use at least one ad blocking tool
80% of North Americans use at least one ad blocking tool
@burgerking | Twitter (2018) ©

Insights and opportunities
Social media is a valuable yet underutilized tool through which to playfully troll competitors. Researchers from the University of York investigated the methods used by 50 high-profile brands on Facebook and found that social media users positively engaged with posts that were openly competitive in their messaging, e.g. when a brand compared itself to another. Despite the success of this approach, only 1% of the 10,000 posts analyzed featured such a tactic. [12] While the Whopper Detour used McDonald’s outlets to sell BK’s own products and gain exposure via user-generated content, Domino’s AI-driven Super Bowl loyalty scheme rewarded consumers for eating any pizza. With this in mind, the more measurable the campaign, the better, as brands could run the risk of boosting their competition.

Whether it’s Apple vs. Microsoft, Pepsi vs. Coke, or Burger King vs. McDonald’s, rivalries are a key part of some brands’ identity – but it’s important to note that Burger King’s underdog status makes its ribbing acceptable. “McDonald’s is more than likely secretly okay with being the butt of the joke, given that it implies that Burger King is the upstart. There’s a broad understanding now that ‘punching down’ comes across as bullying at worst and needless at best,” explains Leigh. [7] Such antagonistic marketing tactics may well alienate consumers in other sectors, but there’s a lot to learn from BK’s internet-aware tone of voice and humor. Wendy’s ‘Keeping Fortnite Fresh’ campaign was a prime example of using subterfuge, not rival trolling, to underscore its identity. [13] By interacting with Fortnite gamers as a peer and eradicating all frozen burgers in the virtual world, it showed its dedication to quality ingredients without pushing the envelope – and potentially appealed to the 56% of online browsers in the US, UK, Germany, and France who feel digital ads are an insult to their intelligence. [14]

Putting some effort into grabbing a bargain or redeeming a coupon can help to increase the amount of value we put on it (in a similar vein to the ‘IKEA effect’), and this feeling is elevated if people can share parts of that effort online. It’s along these lines that the Whopper Detour created a sense of community. By forcing customers to turn up at a physical space (which happened to be its competitor’s store), they joined an experience – sometimes alone, often collectively. With drop culture pervading many sectors beyond streetwear (proven by Burberry’s 24-hour B Series product drops), this sales model can give people an exciting real-life experience while augmenting the convenience of mobile commerce. With sparks sure to fly as TV networks take on streaming giants on their own turf in the latter half of 2019, location-based activations could help digital products leap into more tangible realms – and delight fans in the process.

1. 'The Whopper Detour - FCB New York - Burger King - GP Direct', ADVExpress | YouTube (June 2019)
2. '‘Whopper Detour', Burger King’s masterpiece of trolling, wins Direct Grand Prix at Cannes', Adweek (June 2019)
3. 'The inside story of the Burger King campaign that changed the brand’s entire outlook on marketing', Adweek (May 2019)
4. 'Faster fast food? 1,000 Americans surveyed about mobile ordering', Field Agent (April 2017)
5. 'Burger King convinces McDonald's super fans to have their burger tattooed on them', The Drum (July 2015)
6. 'Burger King is still trolling McDonald’s - now with free Whoppers for clowns', The Drum (October 2017)
7. Interview with Rich Leigh conducted by the author
8. 'Sixty-five percent of people skip online video ads. Here’s what to do about it', CNBC (February 2017)
9. 'Are consumers ‘adlergic’? A look at ad-blocking habits', The Wall Street Journal (April 2018)
10. 'Geofencing market research report- global forecast 2023', Market Research Future (May 2019)
11. 'Five examples of brands using geofencing to great effect', AList (December 2018)
12. 'Competitive rivalry in Facebook messaging not such a bad thing', Phys.Org (June 2019)
13. 'Wendy's 'Keeping Fortnite Fresh' bests Nike's 'Dream Crazy' to take Social & Influencer Grand Prix at Cannes Lions', Advertising Age (June 2019)
14. 'Why people block ads (and what it means for marketers and advertisers)', HubSpot (July 2016)

Featured Experts

Rich Leigh

Rich Leigh is the founder and director of award-winning PR agency Radioactive PR and talent agency Radioactive Talent. He wrote the best-seller ‘Myths of PR’ and founded the UK’s #1 PR blog PRexamples.com in 2012, before selling it in 2018. In June 2018, Radioactive PR became one of the first companies in the UK to adopt a four-day work week without cutting pay.


Megan Carnegie is the library editor at Canvas8. She has a degree in English Literature and French, an MA in magazine journalism, and was previously a freelance journalist and editor for TimeOut London, Courier magazine, and The Guardian, among others. Outside of work, she can be found reading, running, and killing off her houseplants.



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