Even McDonalds burgers are in trouble

McDonalds Burgers. If you follow this blog at all, you know that I have written about the fast food category quite a bit (and that Stealing Share has experience in this market). Most of the major fast food chains are losing market share, seeing weak and negative same-store growth and are consistently trying to out maneuver each other with new menu items. (Cheetos Chicken Fries from Burger King anyone?)

McDonalds burgers
Fewer people are eating McDonalds burgers

Recently, I read an article from the Wall Street Journal about McDonalds recent sales declines. This article was different from the litany of business articles about McDonalds struggles because it specifically looked at the its staple product – the burger.

Fewer people prefer McDonalds burgers

For a while now, McDonalds burgers have suffered from a number of quality issues, like dealing with the whole pink slime thing from a few years ago and the fact that burger chains like Five Guys and Smashburger are doing pretty well with better and fresher ingredients.

McDonalds has decided that now would be a good time to take a look at the quality of McDonalds burgers again.

At this point, however, this seems futile. McDonalds has already lost and I think its leaders know it too. Proof of this is in its current expansion of its all-day breakfast options. As wildly successful as McDonalds burgers has been, they are dinosaurs. McDonalds recent inability to adapt to the changing wants and needs of the consumer is proof of that. If McDonalds really wanted to compete (past tense) then it should have made a better Big Mac a long time ago, before its customers left the brand.

Now, even if it does come up with a better burger, it will still need to convince people that it is truly better. That process takes a lot of money and a lot of time. Unless McDonalds can fundamentally take a look at itself more harshly, there is not enough of either to fix what’s wrong with McDonalds burgers.

Extra Crispy Sunscreen does what for KFC?

A few days ago, KFC announced that it would sell a brief run of Extra Crispy Sunscreen that works like regular sunscreen with the added benefit of smelling like extra crispy fried chicken.

Extra Crispy Sunscreen
Is Extra Crispy Sunscreen mean Yum Brands and KFC have lost their minds?

At first, this just seems like a mindless marketing tactic to build on the current campaign starring George Hamilton. I knew it was a thinly veiled attempt to generate social media activity and get some play in publications. I passed it off as sophomoric and lacking any real ability to gain any sort of preference.

Until I read the press release.

It reads like most other releases on promotional gimmicks, carefully weaving in the details of the gimmick with how it is supposed to relate to the brand. However, as I read the last paragraph, I was dumbfounded. It is a quote from Kevin Hochman, chief marketing officer of KFC US. It reads:

“While I’d love to tell you our customers have been asking for this, they haven’t,” Hochman added. “In fact, I’m pretty confident nobody ever asked for this. It’s just some crazy idea we dreamed up.”

Extra Crispy Sunscreen doesn’t help the brand.

I have been a very outspoken critic of how Yum brands have lacked much considered thought in its brands. I’ve been hard on the company because it’s my job to find issues with brands and develop a strategy to fix them.

But now it appears I haven’t been too hard on them at all. Yum and KFC have no idea where they are going from a strategic direction as evidenced by the statement, “…It’s just some crazy idea we dreamed up.”

Make no mistake, out of the box thinking is how I operate, but that thinking has to be tied to an overarching strategy. KFC’s foray into skin protection has no strategy – and the quote proves they know it.

There is nothing about Extra Crispy Sunscreen that ties people to the brand meaning of KFC. Sure it may tie them to the nostalgia of the brand, it does not make consumers more loyal or apt to try KFC for a meal. It generated some buzz, but it’s buzz about the sunscreen, not KFC’s brand.

If I were an investor, I would be worried about what was going on in that C-suite. In quick service, activity without accomplishment is costly, especially for brands that are already struggling.

Hardees gets it. The rest don’t.

You see, Burger King. Hardees gets its. When it introduces a new menu item, such as the Midnight Moonshine Thickburger, it is at one with its brand of “Eat it like you mean it.”

Last week, I wrote about Burger King introducing the Angriest Burger, even though it has very little relation to BK’s brand. Sure, it’s a hamburger. But that just makes it a new menu item, and therefore soon to be forgotten.

When Hardees has something like the Midnight Moonshine Thickburger, you order it because you eat it like you mean it. You eat the Angriest Burger because…why?

Why Hardees competition fails.

The fast food industry is one of the most competitive among all markets with McDonalds, Wendy’s and Burger King atop the charts. But the number of competitors has risen in recent years, with the introduction of so-called fast casual restaurants such as Panera Bread, delis such as Subway and even all the pizza chains.

The choice among consumers has never been greater, which is why the largest chains have been heavily targeting the breakfast segment because that’s the only daypart with room to grow.

But instead of trying to put some brand distance between themselves, the largest chains have been competing on an ever-changing menu and the lowest price on combo meals. It’s the same hamster-in-the-wheel thinking that has seen stagnation in the pizza market.

Few of them ever try to distance themselves with the meaning of their brands. Even McDonalds has lost its way, losing market share as it’s been trying to become relevant again.

Adding menu items and even offering discounts are not bad things in and of themselves. The problem is those become short-term strategies in the absence of those tactics being the fulfillment of a brand promise.

And it’s because of a meaningful brand promise that loyalty can exist. So when BK and others wonder what they need to put on their menus next to keep up, others like Hardees just keep surging along because they have a brand that gives those tactics meaning.

Why would I eat a Midnight Moonshine Thickburger? Because I eat it like I mean it.

Burger King and industry-wide brand problems

The fast food industry is currently undergoing an identity crisis as industry sales are down, mostly attributed to more competition with healthier options.

But the truth is that most of the chains are undergoing a brand crisis. What does McDonalds stand for anymore? Wendys?

No chain is having a more difficult time with its brand than Burger King.

Its response to failing brand preference? Try to out-menu the competition.

Burger King
The Angriest Whopper is all fine and dandy but what about Burger King as a whole?

Burger King is currently promoting hot dogs and now comes word that it will be offering the Angriest Whopper. The burger will have hot sauce baked into it with onions and jalapenos along with other options.

Burger King isn’t the only one trying to out-menu the competition. As most of you know, McDonalds now offers a limited breakfast menu all day. The market leader has seen sales rise and Burger King had some success with the recent additions of chicken fries.

New menu items help, but don’t address Burger King’s fundamental problem.

New menu items often prompt a spike in sales but they are short-term gains. They don’t address the fundamental problem of brand preference.

If customers are so easy to attract by simple menu additions, then how loyal are they to a brand in the first place? What happens is that you’re constantly having to add and switch out menu items to keep up. It’s like the pizza chains having to go back and forth on price because they have nowhere else to play.

No one tries the out-menu strategy more than Burger King. Do you remember the omelet sandwich? The Burger Shots? Its once touted low-calorie fries that tasted like dirt? The BK Rib Sandwich?

Burger King isn’t the only one that does this kind of thing. All the chains do some version of it and McDonalds isn’t shy about it either by a long shot. It’s the path they have chosen.

Adding menu items by itself isn’t a terrible idea. The point is that Burger King, more than most, has consistently failed to think about its business in terms of brand. To think about its success long term. It does little to nothing to demonstrate who is the Burger King customer and what self-identifications BK has to offer. (Even Sonic, as loathsome as I find them, has the dorks in the car as identifiers.)

So, enjoy the Angriest Whopper, BK. Just know that any rise in sales will be short-lived until you take on your biggest problem: Your brand.

A healthy Taco Bell is not believable

If you look at the fast food marketplace, the brands – McDonalds, Burger King, Wendy’s, Taco Bell, etc., – are in chaos.

And that’s being kind.

They are fighting with every last bit of strength to reposition themselves in the marketplace as sales are dwindling.

McDonalds, for instance, is offering its breakfast menu all day. Now, you can get that Egg McMuffin as a midnight snack, which I’ve described as just a Band-Aid.

The new move by Taco Bell.

The new trend in fast food is to provide food that’s healthier for you than what chains normally offer, even though studies have proven that consumers usually still opt for the fatter foods. In fact, the main problem is that fast food chains don’t have the permission to be accepted as healthy by consumers. Even McDonalds failed to gain traction going that route, potentially damaging its brand.

Healthy Taco Bell
Yeah, cage-free eggs will make this healthy.

Taco Bell has now announced it is committed to using cage-free eggs in the menu items at all of its 6,000-plus restaurants by this time next year. Let’s just assume that cage-free eggs are healthier, does the Taco Bell customer care? More importantly, will the cage-free eggs get someone who thinks of Taco Bell food as worthless crap into the store?

I feel resolute in my belief that one will never believe in a healthy Taco Bell. No amount of cage-free eggs will change my assumption nor the assumption of many others.

When you order a Biscuit Taco Combo, does it matter what kind of egg you’re eating? Nope. Each bite of that 870-calorie monstrosity isn’t anywhere near being healthy. Don’t fool yourself.

Think about this: The fast riser in the industry is Hardee’s (or Carl’s Jr., depending on where you live). It has positioned itself as the opposite – “Eat it like you mean it” – and it’s doing wonders for the brand.

I’m not saying others should follow that example, except that the message is a brand one. Cage-free eggs is a menu item and chains that attempt to out-menu their competition will find themselves changing to something else down the road.