Burger Wars will heat up again

Nov. 14, 2011 | by Barry Klein

This old burger guy sees a return to the battle for a share of visits by the giants of the business very soon. Why now? Because both Burger King and Wendy's have abandoned the off-the-wall approaches to consumer marketing with which they had indulged misguided creative egos, losing sales along the way. Both brands have returned to campaigns that sell product instead of what is known in the vernacular as "schtick."

I won't cast aspersions at the Funky Chicken or the Redheads. After all, people at high executive levels approved them. We'll leave it to ad history textbooks to provide that commentary. What impresses me is that both Wendy's and Burger King seem to be on the road to solid, hard working marketing strategies and tactics which have an opportunity to take some of those consumer visits back from McDonald's and perhaps stem some of the incursion of the "better burger" concepts.

Examples include Burger King's excellent, appetizing food photography, the emphasis on burgers and breakfast cooking, and its new Kids Meal program, which is as complete an offering as QSR has seen in a long time.

Wendy's has once again connected consumers with Dave Thomas and "hot and juicy." Dave was the best burger spokesperson ever, and having his daughter Wendy represent the connection was smart. Wendy's mid-priced burger line could be another sales-builder, as long as operational complications are minimized.

The point is that both burger biggies are now managed by people with their feet on the ground. Emil Brolick has all the background (and proven strategic moxie) that's necessary to lead Wendy's turnaround.

Although the people that Burger King's new ownership selected to guide the brand are much less well-known in the industry, they have quickly moved in the right direction.

Both management teams understand what motivates consumers, and won't be taken in by slick, entertaining-but-not-selling communications. They may not have the budgets, ubiquity and experienced army of marketers that is behind the Golden Arches, but they are finally on what looks like a better competitive path, both strategically and creatively.

That is why the opinion here is that within the next six months we will hear reports of gains by Wendy's and Burger King, and some flattening at McDonald's. No, I don't think McDonald's sales will turn negative, primarily because of their ingenious build-up of the beverage segment and their huge lead at breakfast. Now we hear that they are about to mine new growth from dessert and snacks visits that the burger category doesn't currently enjoy.

It's the sandwich portion of the menu that will account for the comeback by Burger King and Wendy's. A large number of those increased visits will come from other, smaller chains, and if the improved products live up to expectations, the fast casual places could lose sales to an equally tasty QSR that offers drive-thru convenience. The menu and marketing machinations between the three burger biggies should be fascinating to watch.

It's very seldom that my view of the burger world provokes predictions such as this, so there's a need to mention potential pitfalls. First, the stores have to deliver what is promised by the marketing, and make the experience consistently better than it was while the strategy was bouncing off the walls. That means clean stores and hot product, served in a timely manner by well-trained people.

In addition, many stores need to be remodeled and modernized to the point where they are at least comparable to competitors. And that means finding the investment dollars to do the job, which may be the most difficult piece of the puzzle.

If I had anything but one of the beat-up paper hats we had to wear in the old days, I'd tip it to the new leaders at Wendy's and Burger King for getting me excited about the coming market share battles over burgers. In fact, should someone ask, I'm ready to pitch in immediately. Old war horses are always happy to join the battle.

Topics: Burger/Steak/BBQ , Business Strategy and Profitability , Marketing / Branding / Promotion , Operations Management , Trends / Statistics

Barry Klein / Barry Klein is best known for creating the Ronald McDonald character and led the "You Deserve A Break Today" advertising campaign for McDonald's. In his current occupation as a marketing consultant, Klein has developed business-building concepts, new products and more for Coca Cola, Pizza Hut, Quiznos, Cadillac, Ruby Tuesday, Friendly’s, Perkins, Pay Less Shoes and others. He has been a key contributor to such projects as Stuffed Crust Pizza for Pizza Hut, Prime Rib Subs and Torpedoes for Quizno

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