Creativity as a Source of Competitive Advantage: Fernando Machado, Global CMO, Restaurant Brands International

What if marketers treated creativity as a competitive advantage? At the Future of Marketing Leadership conference, Fernando Machado, Global CMO of Restaurant Brands International, speaks about how Burger King consistently punches above its weight thanks to a firm belief that creativity does pay off.

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If you use the Burger King app to order food or follow the brand’s social media accounts, you may have noticed that recently, Burger King did a complete overhaul of its visual design, including an updated logo (or, some would say, a return to its roots), colors, and font. The company will also be updating its packaging and uniforms, as well as updating the design of its physical restaurants. With its flat colors and shapes and fun, 70s-inspired font, the new visual design scheme prioritizes Burger King’s commitment to digital-first expression and the joy of creativity. As the world’s second-largest burger chain, Burger King has come to distinguish itself from its competitors through its memorable, creative advertising and branding

Melding creativity with Burger King’s digital ambitions has been the day-in, day-out work for Fernando Machado over his past seven years working on Burger King’s brand, most recently as Global CMO of Restaurant Brand International (RBI). Last fall, we got to hear firsthand from Machado about his thoughts on creativity, technology, and innovation in marketing, as well as his advice for future leaders of the marketing world, when he spoke at the Future of Marketing Leadership conference put on by the Center on Global Brand Leadership and the ANA Educational Foundation in partnership with the Marketing Association of Columbia.

Although Machado is now a highly sought after thought leader on marketing with over 160 Cannes Lions wins under his belt, he did not always know that he wanted to be a CMO. Originally trained as a mechanical engineer, he discovered marketing work early in his career while initially working in an engineering role at Unilever and fell in love with its fusion of analytical and creative thinking. “When I got my first job in marketing in 1997, I didn’t know who Philip Kotler was. If you asked me what the 4 P’s were, I would have had no idea what you were talking about,” says Machado, chuckling. After an 18-year career at Unilever, Machado became Head of Brand Marketing at Burger King in 2014, then Global CMO in 2017. In 2020, he was promoted to Global CMO of the entire Restaurant Brands International company. 

Machado’s approach to his role as CMO—and the topic of marketing leadership at large—is that you need to “work to break down the barriers” between different areas of work at the company and make marketing matter to the entire company. A marketing leader who is interested in being on track to become CEO one day needs to be invested in the future of the company as a whole, not just the brand. Looking beyond just marketing, “you can expand your role,” says Machado, “and layer on things that will cause even bigger impact.” For example, he is involved in the company’s diversity, sustainability, and supply chain overhaul efforts. “All of those things could be part of marketing leadership,” says Machado.

The area of synergy and overlapping responsibilities that Machado finds most interesting is the intersection of data and tech with marketing. “I think that where the magic happens—the cross between the rational and the creative—is what unlocks growth disproportionately.” To achieve this kind of magical thinking, Machado says, “We break the silos, we talk to the tech guys all the time… they don’t report to me, but they are a part of our marketing thinking. And even our marketing guys, they tend to be very tech savvy, because they know it is a priority to the company, and they see that we can unlock huge growth when we get it right.” 

One example of a creative idea that Burger King got right recently was a pilot of a new type of delivery in Mexico City. “I don’t know how familiar people are with Mexico City, but it’s considered to have the worst traffic in the world, and some people take up to 5 hours to get home,” says Machado. So Machado’s team partnered with the tech team to pilot a type of delivery that would be sent straight to cars stuck in traffic. “You would not be able to do that if you were not trying to live on the intersection between data, tech, and creativity,” he says.   

Another area for innovation that Machado and his team are working on is outfitting Burger King drive-thrus with digital menu boards. “In the US, a lot of our business is through the drive-thru,” says Machado. “But think about the drive-thru: it has not evolved much, right? Most likely, if you go to one of our restaurants, it will be the same speaker that was there 20 years ago.” Menu boards, in particular, have a lot of features to be gained if they are made digital. “Why don’t I treat that menu board almost as though it’s your cart on Amazon?” asks Machado. “You know, like if [you] added a Whopper, why don’t they recommend a sundae? Why can’t I show you what your previous order was the last time you came?”

Machado sees cultivating such types of creative thinking as a competitive advantage for Burger King’s business. For example, in December 2018, the Burger King app succeeded in becoming the number 1 most downloaded app in the App Store after Machado and his team created “Whopper Detour,” which geofenced a 600-foot perimeter around rival McDonald’s locations nationwide and offered app users a coupon for a 1-cent Whopper and directions to the nearest Burger King.

In the future, they are hoping that Burger King’s investment in the redesigned restaurants, which are outfitted for the COVID era with all-new drive-thru systems that feature smart menu boards and contactless payment systems, will help them maintain their competitive edge, when drive-thru sales will be increasingly critical and the competition between fast food restaurants and other food establishments will be fierce.

Ultimately, Machado says, “it’s a journey” to be able to successfully tap into the power of creativity as competitive advantage, and you need to first start with the basics of building a strong brand. “I think that step one for us was to define what the positioning of the brand was, what are the values and personality of the brand. Step two was to align on the strategy of the brand: what are we trying to accomplish, what are the targets that we can chase.” And finally—and perhaps most importantly—Machado says that future marketing leaders will need to “not just invest but believe that creativity can be a source of competitive advantage.”

Check out the video of Machado’s talk at the conference to hear more of his thoughts on these topics, as well as others such as diversity in corporate leadership, food trends like plant-based meat, and how to seek out career mentors. For even more great insights on marketing leadership and innovation, read about and watch our other videos from the 2020 Future of Marketing Leadership conference:

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