Kruse Company president Nancy Kruse says McDonald’s response to Burger King’s Big Mac-Whopper mashup was immediate and relevant.
It was the restaurant equivalent of the shot heard ’round the world.
Burger King’s totally unexpected and utterly audacious invitation to its archrival McDonald’s to set aside competitive differences and join forces to celebrate World Peace Day appeared via an ad placed in the New York Times and Chicago Tribune on Aug. 25. The unlikely vehicle for their rapprochement would be a burger dubbed the McWhopper, a mashup of the Big Mac and Whopper sandwiches that would be a very limited-time offer, available for just one day. To facilitate the entente, Burger King thoughtfully created a recipe and packaging. Heck, they even designed some pretty dorky uniforms for its servers.
If I was rocked back on my heels by the sheer cheekiness of the concept, I can only imagine the uproar it created in Golden Arches land. Burger King had very neatly placed the ball in McDonald’s court. After seeing the ad, I spent the day grinning and shaking my head as I joined most of the civilized world in awaiting an answer from Oak Brook.
Said answer, when it finally came, arrived with more of a whimper than a bang and comprised, in my opinion, a rather huffy and stuffy non-response. It stoutly affirmed to one and all McDonald’s support of world peace and promised to be back in touch with a more meaningful initiative, but not before it harrumphed an invitation to Burger King to just pick up the phone and call next time. It was an attempt at humor that placed McDonald’s preferred method of communication firmly in the 20th century.
In the media world, there were some differences of opinion on McDonald’s handling of this hot pommes frites. Some public relations professionals and industry analysts suggested that their reaction was absolutely appropriate and responsible, as it avoided compromising the brand in any way and protected its sacrosanct Big Mac. But most of the digital universe and some other analysts begged to differ and heaped scorn on McDonald’s for its fuddy-duddy attitude.
I think that newbie McDonald’s CEO Steve Easterbrook was rather badly served by his communications gurus. The chain’s longtime nemesis had adroitly set the stage for an equally creative counterproposal, one that might have allowed the burger giant to playfully burnish its somewhat tarnished image. Instead the corporation ceded the field and opened the door for other, less diffident chains to rush in where it feared to tread.
Denny’s jumped into the breach with its truly funny suggestion of a hybrid crafted from the Whopper and its own line of Slam burgers, which might be dubbed the Slopper. Southern icon Krystal leapt into the fray by playing off its signature small burgers and noting that “no gesture is too small” when it comes to world peace. In a bit of marketing kismet, the event took on an international overtones when, Giraffas, which is based in Brazil but has units in Miami, sensed oportunidade for exposure and stepped up to the plate. And regional fast-casual Wayback Burgers threw its hat into the ring, too, by tweaking McDonald’s and pledging to Burger King that “we won’t leave you hanging.”
Finally, on Sept. 20, the eve of World Peace Day, McDonald’s came out with all guns blazing when it announced its leadership of a major effort to aid migrants via the UN’s World Food Program.
Using its clout, it assembled a stellar group of big-dog brands like DreamWorks Animation, United Airlines, Google and Facebook in support of the initiative. McDonald’s also developed a commercial for worldwide exposure to draw attention to the gut-wrenching plight of Middle Eastern refugees attempting to breach European borders and to provide them with food assistance.
Easterbrook, who promised Burger King that that they would hear from him, characterized the initiative as meaningful, authentic and something his customers cared about. I think he’s right: It’s a timely alliance of global powerhouses in a program that has immediacy and relevance. And, by the way, Burger King indicated that it would also participate in the partnership, though the nature and extent of its commitment wasn’t immediately announced.
Here’s where I ask your opinion of this tempest in a takeout bag, Bret. Who do you think scored points here, and who ended up with Egg McMuffin on his face? If you were McDonald’s CEO, would you have played it differently?
McDonald's comes across as a tired brand
The following is NRN senior food editor Bret Thorn’s take on McDonald’s and Burger King’s Peace Day efforts.
Nancy, I am so glad that I’m not McDonald’s CEO. I mean, the paycheck would be nice, but the Golden Arches are taking beatings from all sides these days. Whether it’s issues of labor or health or the environment or anything else that people are mad about, McDonald’s gets the blame. And it’s not just from left-leaning groups. McDonald’s was recently taken to task for not defending genetically modified organisms vigorously enough.
But, hey, that’s what happens when you’re the big dog, and that’s what McDonald’s is: According to NRN’s Top 100 data, if you add up the annual domestic sales of the second, third and fourth largest chains in the United States — Starbucks, Subway and Burger King — McDonald’s still outsells them by $1.5 billion.
With great power comes a great need not to be a jerk about how powerful you are, especially in the current social environment.
Many consumers are looking to patronize companies they can relate to, that seem like underdogs, even if they’re not (ahem, Chipotle). Bravo to McDonald’s for rallying other business powerhouses behind an undisputedly important cause, but by doing so the way it did, it further underscored how big it was, and also rubbed Burger King’s nose in it, which is rude.
Other companies might be able to get street cred by belittling competitors, especially if they do that as a rallying cry against the establishment. Panera Bread did that with a release of its “no-no list” of ingredients it would remove from its food. The promotion of that list included a call for a change in our entire food system.
Taco Bell did it more directly with its marketing campaign that encourages customers to rebel against the routine of McDonald’s breakfast by eating A.M. Crunchwraps or other new morning specialties from the Yum! Brands Inc. subsidiary.
Taco Bell didn’t call out McDonald’s by name (it reserved that for a video in which it invited a bunch of people actually named Ronald McDonald to try their breakfast) and Yum! Brands is itself a global behemoth. But perception is more important than reality, and the perception is that McDonald’s is the establishment and Burger King and Taco Bell, contrary to reality, are not.
McDonald’s supports many important causes, most notably Ronald McDonald House, which provides temporary housing to pediatric cancer patients and their families. In a more holistic sense, it’s the country’s largest purchaser of apples, and probably of clementines, too, since it added them as a Happy Meal option last year. It even introduced many Americans to edamame with its Asian Chicken Salad. It has a good story to tell, if only it would figure out how to tell it.
Instead, with its response to Burger King’s Peace Day overture, it came across looking like a priggish old company that took itself and its Big Mac too seriously.
I’m not surprised that some publicists and analysts thought McDonald’s reaction was appropriate, and maybe that’s what marketing textbooks say you should do. I don’t know; I’m not a marketer. But the days when a company could control its image ended long ago, and it’s time for McDonald’s to wise up to that fact.
What would have been the harm in developing a McWhopper and even selling it for one day? It might have even cast McDonald’s in a positive light, and that’s something I haven’t seen in a long time.
Nancy Kruse, president of the Kruse Company, is a menu trends analyst based in Atlanta and a regular contributor to Nation’s Restaurant News. E-mail her at [email protected].