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King of the Substitute Brands

Signs for Burger King and McDonald’s
credit: Frank Vincentz, CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons

After spending much of my work the last few years immersed in brand strategy I’ve been thinking about it in the context of fast food, which like it or not is part of our culture in America (Adam Chandler wrote an excellent book on this I reflected on here). My interest may stem from the fact that like much of my generation my first paying jobs were at these restaurants. But fast food brands are ubiquitous, and I think one in particular provides us- in addition to hamburgers that taste like charcoal- an interesting study in positioning.

Mapping brand positions

In a Harvard Business Review article from 2015, the authors outlined a method for placing brands in virtually any category through two key dimensions: customer perception, where a brand is defined, and business performance, where a brand’s strength is measured.

By asking consumers of a specific category of goods to rate both how representative and distinctive they think various brands are, and then by cross-referencing those ratings with sales volume and pricing data, they charted four kinds of brands for any given sector: aspirational brands that are highly differentiated and have wide appeal; mainstream brands that are less distinctive but still top-of-mind and usually garner the most sales; unconventional brands which are the most distinctive and make up for lower sales volume with higher pricing; and lastly peripheral brands who are neither representative nor distinctive- the land of the substitutes.

A chart with a horizontal axis for centrality, a vertical axis for distinctiveness, resulting in four quadrants
A chart with a horizontal axis for centrality, a vertical axis for distinctiveness, resulting in four quadrants
From “A Better Way to Map Brand Strategy” by by Niraj Dawar and Charan K. Bagga- Harvard Business Review June 2015

A substitute brand is what it sounds like- one that serves the same purpose as another product or offers similar benefits. Whatever the consumer deems an acceptable replacement at the time of purchase, when their preferred choice might not be available or is otherwise out of reach.

It could be the generic store brand version of a pain reliever, which is more or less identical to the brand-name version…

A picture of Tylenol next to a picture of generic acetominophen
A picture of Tylenol next to a picture of generic acetominophen

…a lower-cost alternative to a premium brand…

A chart mapping beer brands on a worse to better taste and less chuggable to more chuggable
A chart mapping beer brands on a worse to better taste and less chuggable to more chuggable
credit: Stephen Lurvey and Lucas Peterson for the Los Angeles Times

…or even a cover band like you might see delivering an affordable, accessible albeit anachronistic copy of The Beatles, KISS or Poison.

Enter His Majesty

The concept of substitute brands helped me realize something that has bugged me for years about Burger King.

If marketing is everything you do that touches your market, positioning is what you do relative to your competition in order to stand out and help your target customers consider and choose you. And what I see with Burger King is what appears to be a mainstream brand continually positioning itself as the substitute, and I wanted to understand why.

I haven’t conducted a brand mapping study for fast food like the HBR example, but according to a recent industry report from Restaurant Business and Technomic it’s clear that Burger King has a large share of their market relative to most of the competition. In terms of overall value, though, they’re not even close to the category leader McDonald’s, who rank #9 in Interbrand’s ranking of all global brands.

But even if McDonald’s sits at the apex, Burger King is still clearly a mainstream brand within their category- so why would I call them a substitute? Because they act like one.

I can only remember a couple themes from Burger King from their ads over the years: the idea of ‘having it your way’, ostensibly an alternative to McDonald’s menu-driven efficiency; and the whole flame-broiled thing which may have appealed to others but to me meant slightly burnt-tasting hamburgers like you’d have at a church picnic. Still, these were themes that helped set Burger King apart from others.

Now they seem to have abandoned relevant, own-able differentiation in favor of advertising gimmicks that prioritize short-term publicity at the expense of long-term brand equity, while also providing a baffling amount of free publicity to their largest rival. Here’s a few examples:

The Moldy Whopper

In a year like 2020 I wouldn’t have blamed you for not noticing that Burger King ran an ad campaign featuring images of moldy hamburgers, but they did and it garnered considerable attention (at least from those who think attention is the end itself, as opposed to the means to an end).

Fast food already has enough stigma around its consumption- nobody eats it as a healthy option- so the advertising understandably focuses on convenience and enjoyment, and making the product appealing.

I guess this wasn’t original enough for the innovative marketers who thought: what if we make our obviously unhealthy product that people only enjoy for the taste less appetizing?

An unappetizing picture of a Burger King whopper with furry gray and green mold on it.
An unappetizing picture of a Burger King whopper with furry gray and green mold on it.
If you’d never seen a Whopper before, would this make you want one? Yumm.

I realize the message is about natural ingredients and aimed at ever more health-conscious consumers, and it’s a promising angle to address if you’ve seen the experiment in Super Size Me where the fries don’t seem to decay, well, ever. Indeed, McDonald’s saw an uptick in sales of their Chicken McNuggets after removing artificial ingredients, so I don’t blame Burger King for following suit.

Based on viewer feedback via Ace Metrix the campaign got reactions, which I guess was their goal. But you know what their image of a moldy hamburger definitely doesn’t make me want to do? Eat a hamburger. Or anything for that matter.

This next one did, though…

The Hidden Big Mac

Pay no attention to our competitor- this one that we can’t stop referring to.

In 2019, Burger King revealed to an indifferent world that there had been a McDonald’s Big Mac hidden in every Whopper ad that year.

This one didn’t strike me as clever so much as puzzling- did they really go to that trouble? Is the point just that their sandwich is bigger? Do customers really care? And why would they give free publicity to their largest rival?

It seems the advertising industry can’t get enough of their antics. Maybe that was who it was for? Ironically, it just made me want a Big Mac.

The Whopper Detour

A Burger King ad that that displays their competitor’s name more prominently than their own.

In 2018, Burger King ran a location-based promotion where you could get a Whopper for a penny if you ordered it from their relaunched BK app near a McDonald’s restaurant. This one stumped me as well- why keep giving your rival free mentions? Why encourage your customers to go to their restaurant and give them any reason to choose them instead? I think they are underestimating the premium fast-food consumers place on convenience, and overestimating their priority on price and brand loyalty.

I know there are smart people behind these campaigns that calculated the trade-offs and determined a critical mass of restaurants in close enough proximity to a McDonald’s such that the lift in sales garnered by this promotion would be worth any risk. But it looks to me like generating free publicity for dominant competitor to gain only a small fraction more market share.

The Warhol ad

During the 2019 Super Bowl, which attracts millions just to see the commercials, Burger King ran an ad featuring an excerpt of a short film from 1981 of Andy Warhol eating one of their hamburgers and to the unacquainted it may have been surprising, clever, even hip.

However, if you hear the story of the film behind the ad, you’ll learn that while Warhol was happy to do the project, when he arrived for the shoot he was disappointed that they didn’t have McDonald’s, whose branding he found more appealing. I respect that Mr. Warhol went ahead and did the shoot because he was a professional and there to help a fellow artist carry out their vision. Maybe he doesn’t mind the taste of charcoal (he did use ketchup).

It certainly generated conversation online, but did it help the brand? A post-Super Bowl survey issued by FeedbackLoop.com seems to suggests otherwise.

Chart showing that most people who saw the Burger Kind Warhol ad did not like it
Chart showing that most people who saw the Burger Kind Warhol ad did not like it
“The purpose of any business is to create a customer.” — Peter Drucker

I thought this summed it up well:

Based on the reaction the campaign brought, Burger King and their marketing partners no doubt considered the Warhol ad a win. But in taking a short excerpt from an obscure documentary film completely out of context in just to make their brand seem hip and relevant, it left me less certain than ever who- or what- Burger King wants us to think they are.

Periphery as Strategy

There are plenty more examples of Burger King trolling trailing McDonald’s, whether it’s the cancelled clown campaign, their kissing mascots stunt, scavenging customer complaints on social media, or criticizing Happy Meals while exploiting depression as a marketing gimmick.

Even Burger King’s ‘about’ description from their parent company RBI’s website all but mentions McDonald’s by name:

Founded in 1954, the BURGER KING® brand is the second largest fast food hamburger chain in the world.

It’s enough to make me wonder if this is the strategy. If Burger King is committed to drafting McDonald’s, does helping their rival in turn help them? Maybe it’s similar to the symbiotic relationship of the shark and the remora. Perhaps they see themselves as the perennial contender, able to take more risks and leverage underdog appeal without the pressure of being the champ.

None of this is to say that being a peripheral brand is an undesirable or disreputable place to be- a healthy market should provide options to a variety of customers with diverse needs. Personally, I use substitute brands all the time, whether it’s a pain reliever, glass cleaner or a power tool I will only use once in a while. Harbor Freight doesn’t sell any mainstream tool brands at all- they even have substitute brands for their substitute brands.

Cover bands serve a purpose, bringing the live music experience of beloved artists to times, places and audiences they would never reach otherwise. But as Todd Henry of Accidental Creative likes to say, they don’t change the world. Even if playing number two to a mega-brand is profitable in a vast market, it seems to me that whatever sets you apart is always worth emphasizing.

But perhaps they don’t need to fix what’s not broken. With solid market share, a dominant leader to follow, and gimmicky marketing that consistently gets attention- like their retro rebrand- I expect BK will continue to reign over their peripheral kingdom.

Change is the why; marketing is the what; learning is the how.

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