Burger King Plays Catch-Up with Competitors, But What About Customer-Centricity?

Brian Cantor

Excuse me for not being impressed by Burger King’s revamped menu and marketing strategies.

Sure, in the short-term, a minor sales increase seems at least fathomable as curious, cost-conscious restaurant goers foray into the restaurant’s "new" culinary options, including salads, chicken strips, wraps and smoothies. The apparently-controversial commercials featuring celebrities like Jay Leno, David Beckham and Mary J. Blige might not be the genius spawn of Don Draper, but they likely won’t hurt the effort to get some momentum behind the iconic fast food chain.

But in the long-term, is suddenly releasing the exact same menu items leading competitor McDonald’s has offered for years a sign that Burger King is renewing its commitment to the customer experience? Is widening the skew from "young male" to "pretty much everyone" really a sign of customer-centricity?

True, Burger King is also revamping its stores, changing its packaging, cleaning up its cooking process and changing uniforms to reflect a more modern, streamlined approach to food services. At the end of the day, these factors will contribute to a more desirable in-store experience for customers who, like Mike Bullard from Texas, found Burger King’s presentation to be a tad less than appetizing.

"Perhaps try cleaning up the restaurants and hiring people who seem to appreciate the fact
that they have a job at all. BK used to be a favorite of mine but the stores seemed to always be in need of a good cleaning. Probably wouldn't hurt to upgrade the stores as well. More than just a little out of date," wrote Bullard in a comment on a Yahoo! Finance story.

Minor upgrades to experiential factors, however, will never be a silver bullet for a struggling fast food chain, especially one planning to return to public trading. They can reverse the decline and perhaps even position Burger King to retake its #2 spot from Wendy’s, but they ultimately pale in comparison to the importance of food and pricing when it comes to delivering a meaningful, resounding customer experience for customers. When it comes to defining who Burger King is and how it achieves for its customers, one need not look too much further than the menu board.

Keeping up vs. Competing

Those with an ear to the wall of trendy topics like social media know that the concept of "keeping up with the competition" often gets mistaken for "competitive advantage."

They are not one in the same.

Though it is obviously important not to fall behind the competition, there is no inherent value in assuring your offering lines up exactly everyone else in the market. The ultimate priority is keeping the customer satisfied, and so any movement towards a "competitive advantage" should exist on a rubric defined by the customer’s personal wants and needs.

In this case, sure, Burger King does look rather antiquated, old school and "out of touch" by not having the premium chicken wraps, salads and coffee drinks that have become fixtures of fast food in 2012. Not having those items certainly has not helped in its battle to stay relevant, and the market research cited by Burger King indicates the negative impact of getting passed by.

But as far as improvement goes, Burger King’s core questioning should be over how to better present the value proposition or how to better underscore what makes Burger King the ideal destination for fast food customers.

While Burger King might have spent the past few years missing out on revenue from chicken wraps and fruit smoothies, it also remains distantly behind McDonald’s on core products like burgers and fries. Clearly, there is something inherent to Burger King’s pricing and food quality that does not jibe with customer demand. The new products might suggest BK is striving to be more current, but they do not necessarily account for the perceived lack of value that lingers in the restaurant’s overall culinary slate.

As such, it is reasonable to wonder why it should be presumed that customers who prefer the burgers at McDonald’s and Wendy’s to those at Burger King would intuitively expect to prefer Burger King’s Homestyle Chicken Strips to McDonald’s’ Chicken Selects.

In order to truly click with customers, Burger King should be committed—and only committed—to the most fundamental competitive question: what can we do to satisfy our existing and potential fast food customers better than the competition? By focusing mainly on how not to stand out as blatantly weaker, Burger King is not tapping into the customer-centric innovation and value presentation that is a cornerstone of satisfying in an ever-saturated, ever-competitive market. It is not solving its core problem.

There must be something McDonald’s and Wendy’s are not doing—and something that can be tied back to Burger King’s specific promise to its customers—that would present a competitive advantage if introduced into the market. That is how Burger King will truly stand out. That is how it will show it cares about customers and will not relent until their satisfaction, loyalty and trust is maximized.

Is the goal here to turn the business around and achieve actual dominance for the BK franchise? Or is it simply to delay death?

Framing the changes

By attributing a significant point of its lagging to an absence of certain menu options, Burger King is not necessarily admitting its existing offerings have lost appeal. Its emphasis is on what else it should be offering rather than on what more it could be doing for customers.

As such, it is no surprise that Burger King is not properly taking advantage of some cutting-edge trends in fast food promotion. Domino’s Pizza, for example, turned its fledgling brand around by coming right out and admitting its previous pizza recipe sucked. In doing so, it spoke specifically to actual customer sentiment, gained the trust of these customers, and committed itself towards satisfying them with improved food going forward.

Self-deprecation is not the only effective style of marketing, but Domino’s’ campaign worked because it tied its future plans to actual customer perception. With Burger King, it is focusing on a macro-level customer concern (the trend towards higher-quality, healthier food), but it is not dialing it back to the actual sentiment of the prototypical Burger King customer.

It is not fully-justifying its transformation in language that a Whopper or Stacker lover will recognize and is therefore not selling the full impact of the change.

With Subway going the extra mile in establishing the health of its food, Chipotle demonstrating how to establish social consciousness and Domino’s revealing the importance of honesty, Burger King’s messaging feels weak and ineffectual. It is simply trumpeting what its competitors have long offered and doing so without the clear value proposition that made these items successful elsewhere.

Again, if I’m a fast food customer currently choosing McDonald’s’ burgers over those from Burger King, what reason do I have to choose Burger King’s frappes over McDonald’s’ frappes?

Get back to me, BK, when you have a clear, brand-consistent, customer-centric answer.

Photo credit: Burger King