Copycat Strategy

Like most of you, it is nearly impossible for us to escape the onslaught of fast-food commercials on television.  A few weeks ago, for no particular reason, a Burger King commercial caught our attention.  The focus of the commercial was to promote the relatively new Big King.  It looked and sounded almost exactly the same as McDonald’s Big Mac.  In fact, the Big King has two beef patties, special sauce, pickles, and onions on a sesame-seed bun.  Sing-a-long if this sounds remotely familiar.  So a few of us started digging around to understand this seemingly familiar offering and quickly found that not only was the Big King nearly a perfect clone of the Big Mac, but that Burger King also offers a BBQ Rib sandwich, again, surprisingly similar to the McRib.  Digging further into the menu turned up a list of other similar menu items with nearly identical offerings on the McDonald’s menu.

We got to thinking about this and whether or not the approach made sense as a marketing strategy. There is a certain component to it that makes sense, although we struggle to understand why any company would want to offer the exact same things as their primary competitor.  It begs the question, why would customers choose you if you do not offer something different from your larger and better-known competition?  By not positioning their brand as offering something unique and differentiating, something that customers find more appealing, hasn’t Burger King, in some way, decided that their business will be primarily driven by McDonald’s customers that happen to have a Burger King more conveniently located?  Why else would someone go to a Burger King?  The similarity to generic prescription drugs is astonishing.  The only difference is that a generic prescription will often be 50% - 75% cheaper than the original.  That is definitely not the case here.

In years past, Burger King differentiated themselves on the “better taste of flame broiling”.  In recent ads there is no mention of it.  Burger King sales increased by 3.5% in 2012 versus a 3.4% drop experienced in 2011, so we guess this is considered a success.  But is it sustainable? 

Many marketers may tell you that this strategy is sustainable for a while, but that over the long-term, it could be fatal to the brand.  With staggering competition, not just from McDonald’s, but also from Wendy’s, Subway, and other fast food chains, can Burger King survive long-term without a distinct brand positioning?  Probably not.  Except for already loyal followers, potential customers can look at the Burger King brand as a poor substitute for the original McDonald’s.  It usually doesn’t take customers long to make the choice and go for the original in these cases and unless Burger King gives them a reason to see the products as different, why would they choose Burger King?

It appears that Burger King marketing has given up the heavy lifting of understanding the fast food customer and the choices that motivate restaurant selection.  Or maybe they have and cannot seem to figure out what it is that they offer that is different than McDonald’s.  There is at least one good option and that’s going back to the “better taste of flame broiling”.  This probably will not appeal to every fast food customer, but then again, neither does McDonald’s.  The critical success factor missing from the Burger King strategy is identifying the things that the customer pool is unsatisfied with in other choices and finding a way to satisfy it.  They must have thought this to be the case in the “flame broiled” years.  Something must have led them to think that McDonald’s didn’t satisfy the taste needs of many consumers.  Is that the case today?  It may be, but it may be a number of other things as well.  Do customers want cleaner stores?  Can better service make a difference?  Can healthier options, a more diverse menu, a more limited menu, or any of a hundred other things differentiate Burger King from McDonald’s and entice more customers to buy?  Of course they can.  Do they all have the same potential for success?  No they don’t, but failing to create any differentiation from your competitor is almost certainly a recipe for failure.