How to make a McWhopper and put your competition on notice

At the recent CommsCon conference Josh Moore and Jono Key from Y&R New Zealand presented on the acclaimed McWhopper campaign for Burger King. This week the unlikely recipe was hailed at The Andys in New York, named Best in Show – a first for New Zealand. Alex Hayes reheats the take-outs from the session.CommsCon - McWhopper - newspaper ad

What is a McWhopper – half McDonald’s Big Mac and half Burger King’s Whopper – actually worth?

About $182m in earned media and 8.9 billion media impressions, apparently.

Last August the world’s media was captivated by an audacious offer extended by Burger King to fierce rivals and market leaders McDonald’s in the US – join with us to make a McWhopper in aid of charity Peace One Day, for World Peace Day.

Six elements would be taken from each signature burger to create the hybrid, which would be sold for one day only at a pop-up shop in Atlanta, with proceeds going to the charity and the two brands doing their bit to promote world peace.

It was a simple offer, but one that broke so many conventions it got the media and, by extension, consumers debating what a McWhopper would be like.

On top of all that it was an idea cooked up by in an unlikely place – Y&R New Zealand.

Unlikely that is, in terms of it coming from a small agency at the bottom of the world, rather than a big US agency. But according to Josh Moore, CEO of Y&R: “PR is no longer an optional channel, it’s our channel of choice. It’s the way we get all our big ideas into the market now.”

The PR idea behind the McWhopper was simply: “What does peace taste like?”


Despite being a relatively simple premise it was one that took four years to get to the dinner table.

Y&R’s head of planning Jono Key readily admits the brief was not an original one, but lifted from the 2012 D&AD Awards White Pencil brief to promote Peace One Day.

Peace One Day for D&AD White Pencil from martinshit on Vimeo.

The difficulty they encountered was a local client in NZ who felt the idea was too big for them. And a watering down of the idea just was not going to cut the mustard. As Key put it: “It means nothing if it was just a concept”.

Eventually they were given the go-ahead to pitch the idea to US headquarters. The marketer there was a man named Fernando Machado.

Machado had recently been lured from Unilever to be head of brand for Burger King. At Unilever Machado had spearheaded the successful ‘Dove Real Beauty’ campaign including the ‘Real Beauty Sketches’ campaign.

Knowing they probably had one shot to make the idea stick, the Y&R team put together a three-minute video detailing their vision for the campaign. The response from Machado was enthusiastic, to say the least:

fernando machado email mcwhopper

“I FUCKING LOVE THE IDEA,” his email started. “Sorry, I curse a lot. Especially when I like something. And I hope that by now you know I walk the talk on doing big and bold things. I want to help make this happen. Call me as soon as you can.”

The gamble had paid off. Now they actually had to make the grand plan come to life.

Candy and diplomacy

That process included several trips for Key and Moore to the US to meet with Burger King’s lead agencies there, a process which could have seen the idea taken away from them if they were not careful.

How did they manage that? Diplomacy, and Kiwi confectionary.

Key explained: “Candy is how we got through a lot of our meetings. We’d go to meetings in New York and agencies would get a little bit defensive and we took lots of New Zealand confectionary and handed that around – Pineapple Lumps – that got us through a lot of trouble.

“To be fair, Burger King’s creative agency of record, an agency called David, were unbelievable. We always thought they would be the ones who were the most stand-offish but they were the ones that embraced us because it was a great idea.”

mcwhopper open letter

(Click to enlarge)

The campaign materials, which included a video, used a lot of McDonald’s intellectual property. But Moore explained that was all fine because what they were crafting was a “proposal” rather than a campaign, and as such legally allowed use of those trademarks until McDonald’s responded.

The team crafted the approach to McDonald’s and decided to kick it all off with two full-page press ads. One in the New York Times and one in the Chicago Tribune.

It didn’t take long for the US TV networks to pick it up that morning and start to talk about the campaign, and the wick was lit.

At the same time they also took out a number of outdoor ads around the world next to key McDonald’s stores, to emphasise the campaign. But rather than a unified campaign “the outdoor installations were created to be little shots to share on social media” according to Key.


An outdoor ad installed at Palmerston North in New Zealand

The group also created the website to be “a media-kit in disguise”, designed to get as many media outlets onto the site drawing material off and creating their own articles, and allow more and more of the public to see the campaign and share it on social.

The response

While the campaign had always been conceived with McDonald’s as the partner, the team realised “McDonald’s would never say ‘yes’ to this”.

CommsCon - McWhopper - wide

Then it was a waiting game, to see how McDonald’s would respond. But while they were doing that they had thousands of social media messages to respond to.

And then the response came from McDonald’s on its own Facebook page. It wasn’t just a no, but a cringeworthy no.

mcdonalds mcwhopper response.jpg

“McDonald’s took a very traditional response,” said Moore. “It was very old fashioned in our opinion. It was basically don’t acknowledge number two and try and shut the conversation down as quickly as possible.”

While most of the post was conventional, Key pointed to the phrase: “P.S. A simple phone call will do next time” as being a “lighting rod for social media and PR, because it wasn’t in the spirit of the campaign”.

“Lots of different media outlets came out saying it was a heavy-handed, old-fashioned approach,” he adds. “We probably don’t appreciate it here in Australia but McDonald’s is in a world of hurt and the way they responded to the McWhopper proved that.”

As part of the planning they had four scenarios planned out for what they thought might happen and which brands might accept it.

“Unfortunately it was none of the brands we planned for,” said Key. “We were on the run. We moved from a campaign called ‘McWhopper’ to a campaign called ‘Peace Burger’.

“Other brands started using the campaign. Denny’s came out with their own open letter in the New York Times saying ‘we’ll join you’, and it was up to Burger King to start walking the talk.”

A number of smaller brands also came on board including Wayback Burger, Krystal and Giraffas, a Brazilian chain.

“We’ve gone from working with one marketing team and one competitor to four marketing teams and competitors, but it worked out very well,” added Key.

“What Peace Day Burger allowed us to do was have another round in the media. It was only about a third of the spike of the McWhopper, but it allowed us to get more attention for Peace One Day in the build up to September 21 (World Peace Day).”

While other businesses were lining up fill the void left by McDonald’s the public was continuing its own efforts to keep the campaign alive.

By the end of the campaign there had been 8.9bn media impressions around the world – and the Y&R team worked with nine Burger King PR agencies to help bring it to bring it together.

It became the number one trending topic on Reddit and the campaign delivered for both the brand and the cause it adopted.

There was a 40% spike in Peace One Day Awareness, $182 earned media and, most importantly for Burger King, a direct McWhopper effect on brand consideration in the latest round of research.CommsCon - McWhopper - guests

This week’s Best in Show Award at the Andy’s against work from around the globe was, if not the icing on the cake, the special sauce on the burger.

The ‘Grandy’ was a popular choice, with judges highlighting the campaign as showing a combination of leadership and risk-taking.

Gina Grillo, president and CEO of The Ad Club of New York and the International Andy Awards, summed up the win, which often sets the standard for award shows across the year, by saying: “Colleen and our jury have set the bar high by honouring those who are daring and who are not afraid to support ideas and projects they care about,” Grillo said.


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