Stop the madness!

When I was a kid, Harvey's had the best-tasting burgers. But I preferred McDonald's skinny, salt-ridden fries to Harvey's plumper versions. Later, in my teens, Wendy's became a somewhat healthier alternative thanks to its salad bar and baked potatoes (sans sour cream and other fattening toppings, of course).

When I was a kid, Harvey’s had the best-tasting burgers. But I preferred McDonald’s skinny, salt-ridden fries to Harvey’s plumper versions. Later, in my teens, Wendy’s became a somewhat healthier alternative thanks to its salad bar and baked potatoes (sans sour cream and other fattening toppings, of course).

If I was in a hurry, McDonald’s had the most efficient drive-thru; not only were they speedy, but you usually got what you asked for. (Although occasionally, the french fries would be thrown in carelessly and annoyingly scatter to the bottom of the takeout bag.) On the other hand, Wendy’s and Harvey’s were snail-like at drive-thru, and at Harvey’s they usually screwed up your order, due to the customized toppings; you were better off to go inside. One way or another, you always knew what you were in for.

Times have changed, as outlined in this issue’s Burger Wars (see page 5).

As Brian Howlett, partner and associate CD at Toronto agency Axmith McIntyre Wicht, puts it, everyone in the quick service restaurant (QSR) category is trying ‘to do what the other guy does.’

Wendy’s has its Garden Sensations Salads, like the Mandarin Chicken and Chicken BLT options and McDonald’s also has reintroduced salads as part of its new Lighter Choices Menu, such as its Mandarin California Greens and Chicken Caesar. Burger King now has a Chicken Caesar salad and a Chicken Whopper. Dairy Queen, of course, has ice cream, but burgers and salad as well; McDonald’s has ice cream and more recently, yogurt. Confused? As Howlett says: ‘Holy shit, where does it end?’

Most fast food firms believe product innovation translates into excitement for consumers and, ultimately, sales at the counter. But the danger is obfuscation between the offerings and the chance that the public will lose sight of the core brands – what each company stood for in the first place.

Do you recall that BK is all about flame-broiled? Or that Harvey’s is charbroiled? And what exactly does McDonald’s stand for? (Fries!) The raison d’etre of the Golden Arches has become more perplexing with its Lighter Choices launch, which is pretty much an oxymoron for a company that built its name on the 500-plus calorie Big Mac (and is concurrently pushing hot fudge brownie sundaes). And let’s not forget what happened to the McLean. Or the bacon double cheeseburger pizza.

Having said that, Canadians have had no trouble accepting the foray of this year’s Top Client Overall, Tim Hortons (see page 19), into QSR territory; indeed its annual sales are now estimated to be over $2 billion, and are expected to beat that of McDonald’s this year (which may have been an impetus for the new Lighter Choices menu in the first place.)

Timmy’s has come a long way since 1964, when Toronto Maple Leaf Tim Horton opened his first location in Hamilton, Ont. At that time, there were only two items on the menu: doughnuts and coffee. Today, there are bagels, muffins, sandwiches, soups, and the list goes on.

But Tim Hortons’ massive growth in the last five years also fosters an opportunity for some of its lesser competitors to steal some market share, as aptly argued in a letter to Strategy (May 6) by Matthew Massey, media planner/buyer at Ottawa-based Acart Communications. Massey points out that all the incessant buttering and toasting of bagels at Tim Hortons has dramatically increased wait times. ‘That is where Country Style can beat Tim Hortons: FASTER IS BETTER!’ he wrote. His idea? Return to the mainstay of the doughnut business – limit the product mix to doughnuts and coffee and ‘market the hell’ out of the ability to efficiently process orders in ‘under one minute.’

In other words, let Tim Hortons take on McDonald’s; instead of trying to catch them with copycat marketing efforts, refocus your own strategy and streamline your offerings. It’s not bad advice; as increased competition breeds more novelty in the QSR business – and each newborn is unveiled via advertising – it will only get easier for an exceptionally simple, consistent message to stand out.

As the QSRs continue to pump millions into product introductions to gain broader reach, traditional big box retailers like Best Buy, Home Depot and Wal-Mart are on a growth path of their own (see page 1). After initially revolutionizing the industry with their mammoth stores, they are now moving onto Main Street, next door to the mom-and-pops, with scaled-down versions. But here too, there is an inherent risk in that the downtown concepts could dilute their brand image.

Retail analyst Richard Talbot of Talbot Consultants in Unionville, Ont., warns the downsized shops should be given a special moniker, like ‘Home Depot Express,’ to make clear to consumers they aren’t necessarily going to get the same experience as they would in the suburban spaces. After all, if the original strategy was to communicate a vast selection, a visit to an urban spot with less stock could leave a negative impression if shoppers can’t find exactly what they need.

Among big box retailers and QSR chains alike, the quest to grow market share has forced marketers to reach out to new demographics in novel ways, but there is a price to be paid in that all this noise is overwhelming for the consumer.

For his part, Howlett hopes for a day when the madness will stop, at least for the fast food joints. ‘Maybe McDonald’s will wake up and say, ‘we should go back and be the best fry place in the world.”

Amen to that.

Lisa D’Innocenzo, News Editor