Eating Badly: Burger King, The Saddest Chain in Fast Food

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When was the last time you set foot in a Burger King? Been a while? Well, in 2015 it’s “been a while” since a lot of American consumers have visited a BK, and for good reason. After all, the average consumer is not entirely clueless. And human beings in general are calibrated in such a way that they can inherently pick up on the sort of existential malaise your typical BK is now spewing into the atmosphere.

Burger King is a venerable chain with a ton of history behind it. 61 years since its foundation. 40 years spent as the nation’s #2 burger chain behind the unassailable megalith that is McDonald’s. A product like The Whopper that is iconic in its own right. And yet, the BK of 2015 is a multinational corporation in disarray, defined first and foremost by its creative bankruptcy. Simply running through the highlights of the last five years would convince any casual observer of this, starting with the obvious: Burger King is no longer the nation’s #2 burger chain. It was overtaken by Wendy’s back in 2012, and the gap has only increased since then. The two companies are perfect examples of successful vs. stagnant corporate culture; one boldly striding into the future via experimentation, and one struggling through a constant series of copycat product roll-outs and ill-conceived misfires.

But enough generalizations: Let’s look at some specific examples. A few products Burger King has touted in the last few years with national ad campaigns:

– The “Big King” sandwich, which literally just copies every single aspect of McDonald’s Big Mac, right down to the second bun in the middle. Somewhere in the Burger King product development structure, someone said “Boy, we’re really taking a beating here—what if we introduced our own, unchanged version of the product that has been our competitor’s flagship for 45 years? Will anyone notice if we rip off the best-known commercial sandwich on planet Earth?” I’m actually a little surprised they didn’t roll it out with their own house-made soft drink, “BK Coke.”

– A BBQ rib sandwich meant to imitate McDonald’s McRib.

– A sack full of actual, tiny rib bones that cost about $10 for a snack and were discontinued after a couple of months.

– An “extra-long” cheeseburger that is simply the chain’s already existing “rodeo burger,” laid out horizontally on a classic chicken sandwich bun instead of a regular bun. It’s literally the same sandwich, except horizontal. Somehow, this is not—I repeat THIS IS NOT—their laziest product to date. There’s one more still to come that will trump it…

– Crispy chicken wraps (like McDonald’s, if you can believe it) promoted with a Mary J. Blige commercial that was dropped from the air in less than 48 hours after some viewers expressed concerns over whether it was just a little racist to have their one black spokesperson singing about fried chicken. Personally, I’ve always found it more concerning that she seemingly calls the second ingredient “fresh spiders.”

That was just a handful of examples. Let’s examine one in particular in a little more depth—the laziest product roll-out that I’ve ever seen, in any capacity. I’m talking, of course, about the Burger King French Fry Burger.

You may have seen the BK Fry Burger around back in 2013, or a few of the commercials that briefly aired. If not, it doesn’t take too long to sum up: It’s a Whopper Jr., except with four limp French fries casually draped across it. And that’s it. That’s the whole sandwich concept.

I can’t think of a “new” product that is more insulting to the intelligence of the customer base. Sure, chains like BK (and Taco Bell in particular) are under the gun to create new products from the same ingredients they already have on hand, but rarely is that new product one you could have assembled yourself while sitting in the restaurant at any time in the past 50 years. After all, nobody’s ordering a $1 Whopper Jr. without getting at least a small fry with it. So your “new product” is something the consumer could make by simply undertaking the Herculean effort of lifting off the top bun, grabbing a few fries, and throwing them on there. Hell, it would probably be BETTER that way, with less time for the fries to absorb each burger’s half cup of mayonnaise and become a pulpy mess.

At least the commercial is accurate, though: When the little girl says “They stole my idea,” I fully believe her, because this is exactly the sort of idea one would expect a 7-year-old to suggest. Congratulations, Burger King. So glad your strategic vision is emanating from the brilliant commercial minds of Ms. Jorgenson’s second grade classroom. This billion dollar corporation is clearly in good hands. Word is that after recess, they’ll be pitching the “dunk it in a cup of Sprite” burger.

Now let’s turn our attention to the competition: What has a corporation like Wendy’s done any better than Burger King in the last decade, to charge past them so decisively? Short answer: They develop new products that actually intrigue consumers and motivate curiosity. Their moves don’t uniformly come off as reactionary, as each one invariably does with Burger King. You don’t point to a new Wendy’s sandwich and rattle off which McDonald’s product it’s attempting to clone. The chain has its own identity, one that is only becoming more well-defined as a “higher quality,” more creative branch of the fast-casual market.

You want examples? Look at their pretzel bun sandwiches, whether burgers or chicken. Look at their ciabatta sandwiches, the “Baconator,” the natural-cut fries or the reintroduction of their core line of “hot ‘n juicy” burgers. Wendy’s continues to exploit the quality angle successfully, like a Bizzaro World version of the McDonald’s ‘90s-era “Arch Deluxe” strategy, except this time it actually worked. Burger King, meanwhile, can’t even find success with its good ideas. The lower-calorie “Satisfry” released last year was one of the only original thoughts the chain has had in recent memory, and as it turned out, they still couldn’t sell their audience on the concept: They’re being discontinued.

At this point, international business is the only area where things aren’t bleak for Burger King, but even there, in their strongest area, red flags are flying. Most recently, the chain closed 89 stores in Germany thanks to a nationwide BK hygiene scandal—it would appear that no one mentioned food safety laws to the German franchisees. But who cares, it’s only 3,000 jobs, right?

What we’re left with is the portrait of a huge, ungainly corporation that, try as it might, simply can’t get with the times, at least in terms of its image. In one direction, the immovable object of McDonald’s does everything better as the standard-bearer of the “cheap and dependable” aesthetic. And in the other direction, the unstoppable force of Wendy’s pushes a standard of innovation that Burger King has been woefully unable to match. BK finds itself stuck in the middle, unsure of which it should try to emulate this week.

That’s all—you can go back to forgetting about Burger King’s existence now, until the next time they create a “new” product by inserting one value menu item inside another. Don’t worry, my morbid fascination will compel me to let you know when this happens.

Jim Vorel is Paste’s news editor and maintains a strange fascination with disgusting, cheap or otherwise unhealthy food. His Eating Badly columns celebrate and/or poke fun at these industries. You can follow him on Twitter without measurably raising your caloric intake or risk for heart disease.

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