Thoughts from Axel Schwan, Burger King’s Lion-Winning CMO

By Thought Leaders Archives
Cover image for  article: Thoughts from Axel Schwan, Burger King’s Lion-Winning CMO

Axel Schwan, who just took home a Cannes Lion for Burger King, wears a unique kind of CMO hat.  As mentioned at a Cannes panel, the Executive Vice President and Global Chief Marketing Officer for BK explained that the role of the CMO has not only changed but expanded significantly in the last few years -- and “the fact that kind of thinking about door handles and the menu design falls under your unit, is striking.”  I was fortunate enough to have heard him describe his challenges, vision and success stories.  What follows are highlights from that panel, hosted by The Economist and moderated by its U.S. technology editor, Alexandra Suich.

The Details Matter

When asked about strategy and focus Schwan said it’s important to think of the restaurants “as if they're our homes. We feel that we have 15,000 homes around the world.  Think about yourself.  When you invite a guest to your house, probably it will smell well, the restroom will look nice, and everything is in good shape.  This is what we need to do to make our guests happy: we take good care of them, and all details matter.  Therefore, we have to drive sales on the one side to be really looking at the right part, right venue, architecture, all of that.  So, this is partly when you have the whole communication side and restaurant design, with all the elements.”

The BK Way: Study-Plan-Execute

On their award-winning approach, the CMO offered:  “What we like to do at BK is study-plan-execute.  Studying is really important because ... we have hundreds of franchises and our partners invest their own money in this brand, so it's always for the long term.  So, I've got to make sure with my teams that the stuff that we recommend to the world makes sense.  This is why studying, learning, doing research, embracing research is important, and of course, we must be able to read the research then and pull the right conclusions.”

Suich asked if they had to have a reset, where BK tried to develop the language and the thinking of the hospitality business.  “Yes, we actually made a change in our organization a couple of years ago when we started using the word ‘guest’ much more than ‘consumers,’” Schwan responded.  “I killed it out of our vocabulary in the organization, so actually ‘consumers’ is a forbidden word at BK.  Because, you have to embrace the idea of inviting people and treating them well, genuinely, and not just there.  Everything starts with the people.  I don't think of consumers, because I don't think that if you think about people as consumers, if you think about them as we are ourselves.

“Our work is not done if we do a nice TV spot or we do certain media campaigns,” he continued.  “This is just where the works starts for us in marketing because then we have to deliver on the restaurant level, and we marketers sometimes over-complicate things in our industry.  Why?  Simply because we innovate a lot, and that makes life in our kitchens a lot more complex.  My best friend at BK is our head of operations globally because we are in this together.  We would only win if we don't over complicate the restaurants.”  And just like it’s important not to over-complicate things in their kitchens, Schwan said he learned over the years in this industry that “the best marketing can sometimes completely screw up operations.  Everything starts with insights. The insights inform us about how we should shape the marketing support that will meet the expectations.”

Our Agencies are Our Partners, Not Vending Machines

Schwan had praise for their agencies, saying “We need to build [the] true [agency] partnerships that we have.  We need to partner with them.  So, if you want to be a good client, don't just be a client, be a partner and always work on a relationship; always talk very openly about the business side of life, the branch side of life.  Agencies are not vending machines.  You cannot throw in money and then hope that creative work comes out.  It doesn't work like this. You always have to be very close, and it is sometimes a challenge.

“But first,” he continued, “we have to look at ourselves.  What can we do better?  It always starts with a dream.  Man, when I look back at a transcript that I had written it was like 10 pages long, terrible.  We have to be very precise in our briefs:  What you try to do at BK is bring it down to one line.  That is the inspiration.  Inspiration is a springboard from a creative point.  That works for us and we cannot write pieces.”

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