Fast food fads: They come and go

By Tom Dougherty

McDonald’s copying Popeyes: Why fast food fads don’t work

Few brands openly copy one another more often than fast food chains. Because so few of them hold meaningful brands, they grab onto whatever’s working over there to increase market share. The result is fast food fads becoming the norm.

The latest example? McDonald’s is testing a new fried chicken sandwich because…you guessed it. Because Popeyes had taken over all the chatter in the category with its rarely available fried chicken sandwich. And because, as McDonalds itself has admitted, the rise of Chick-fil-A as fast food’s top earner (by percentage of stores) has shaken the industry.

fast food fadsThis, of course, is no surprise. This is an industry in which fast food fads are thought to be the ways to steal market share. But they only give fast food brands short-lived bumps in revenue, then it’s off to the next thing.

Why do fast food brands chase their own tails?

Always looking for the next fast food fad

It’s a never-ending cycle for the brands. Burger King changes its menu daily, it seems. (We exaggerate for effect. We think.) McDonalds makes hay with having its McRib only available periodically. Others try the same tactic with limited success.

Will the fried chicken sandwich fast food fad pass? Or is chicken now the preferred choice for fast food eaters?

Asking those questions is missing the point. The reason for Chick-fil-A’s success has very little to do with the chicken sandwiches themselves. And the reason for the success of the Popeyes sandwich and McDonalds’ McRib is due to an emotional belief that scarcity equals value.

Instead, fast food brands should be asking, “What are the emotional reasons for success and failure in the fast food industry?”

The success of Chick-fil-A

The success of Chick-fil-A derives from its brand more than what it offers. And what a success it is. It is the eighth largest fast food chain in sales, despite having fewer locations than most.

In fact, each Chick-fil-A location earns an average of more than $4 million per year, nearly double that of the next high-earning locations of McDonalds and Panera Bread. No one has locations crossing the $3 million barrier. Except Chick-fil-A.

You think that’s only because of chicken sandwiches?

chick fil a logoThen why doesn’t KFC, Zaxby’s, Bojangles or Church’s Chicken do as well? Or even Popeyes, which averages $1.4 million per location?

That’s what makes McDonalds’ greater entry into chicken seem so…expected. Not that it’s adding a chicken sandwich. It should do that. The problem is believing it’s the Holy Grail.

KFC sports fried chicken sandwiches. While it has more than twice the number of locations than Chick-fil-A, its revenue is half of what Chick-fil-A totals.

It’s not about the chicken. It’s about the brands. And not any of the fast food fads.

The fast food brands haven’t changed a thing

Look at the chicken landscape. The KFC brand is in serious need of brand repair. The Chick-fil-A brand is the best in the industry. That’s what makes the difference. And no fast food fad will change that.

We’ve taken a deep look at the fast food industry a few years ago, finding very few emotionally resonate brands. We found that most players think they can out-menu the competition to success.

Nothing has changed in those years. The Popeye’s chicken sandwich is a current fast food fad that will eventually wane. Chick-fil-A succeeds not because its chicken sandwich is better than the rest. (Taste is subjective.) But because its brand means something important to a wide span of people.

The brand of Chick-fil-A is authentic, something it advertises quite well. Even its testimonial ads speak to an authentic kind of service.

Now, knowing the fast food industry and its ability to co-opt anything they think might be working. No doubt other chains are building ad campaigns around their great service. The problem? Chick-fil-A already owns it, made emotional by its brand of authenticity.

Ignore fast food fads, look toward greater brand meaning

Instead of looking for tactical ways (fast food fads) out of their problems, fast food chains should be looking for the more meaningful and hard work of improving their brand meaning.

McDonalds is still the market leader. But it holds that market lead with more locations than everyone except Subway, meaning Mickey Dees has room for improvement. In fact, it’s brand could use some refurbishing. The McDonalds brand means fun, and it still drives home its theme of “I’m lovin’ It.”

mcdonalds factsBut it feels stale today, and the brand needs to become more relevant. That might be because “fun” is no longer a high emotional intensity among fast food eaters.

Having a new fried chicken sandwich is all and good, but it won’t make the McDonalds brand more relevant.

And that’s what all the other fast food brands must understand. No doubt Burger King will introduce a fried chicken sandwich. And nothing will happen to its market share.

Eventually everybody will copy Popeye’s and Chick-fil-A’s success without understanding what really makes it happen. And nothing will change, before moving onto the next fast food fad.

See more posts in the following related categories: Fast Food branding