Burger wars: How Burger King’s rivalry with McDonald’s reverberates through adland

    This article is part of a four-part series about famous brand rivalries.

    For more than 60 years, McDonald’s has held strong as an icon of America’s post-war boom. As the world’s largest fast food chain — a concept it pioneered — it influences how people around the world eat and live while maintaining a sizable lead over its competitors in number of locations, annual revenue and advertising spend.

    McDonald’s success has opened the doors to countless competitors that have tried to eat into its dominance by differentiating their products, value proposition or brand identity. For half a century, its main rival — in the public consciousness, at least — has been Burger King. But what is to be made of a rivalry where one side has about twice as many restaurants, five times the ad budget and 10 times the revenue? These days, McDonald’s can easily dismiss Burger King by saying — to quote one of its most famous brand ambassadors — “I don’t know her.”

    “McDonald’s was the leader for the longest time, so they spoke with a voice of someone who is a leader in the market. They don’t engage in the rivalry, they were always very stable,” said Fernanda Bürgel, creative director at agency PeterMayer. “Burger King, on the other hand, being the underdog, got to have all the fun — they got to poke at them and do things that felt irreverent and innovative.”

    While trying to dethrone McDonald’s, Burger King has driven innovation in marketing, developing tactics that persist today throughout the fast food industry and beyond. Even if it’s a bit one-sided, the rivalry explains much about advertising’s past, present and future — one that could prioritize creative effectiveness over creative excellence on battlefields like sustainability and digital channels.

    The McDonald brothers’ store in San Bernardino, California, with a 15-cent hamburger sign. McDonald’s opened its first restaurant on May 15, 1940.



    Mid-century beginnings and the burger wars

    McDonald’s was founded in 1940 by brothers Richard and Maurice McDonald in San Bernardino, California. In 1948, the brothers turned their focus to profit-driving hamburgers and launched the Speedee Service System, applying production line principles to create the concept of fast food. These days, the company dates its founding to when franchisee Ray Kroc joined the company in 1955; Kroc bought out the McDonald brothers in 1961 and introduced the Golden Arches in 1962.

    Inspired by a visit to the original San Bernardino McDonald’s restaurant, Keith J. Kramer and Matthew Burns opened the Insta-Burger King in Jacksonville, Florida, in 1953. When the company faltered in 1959, it was purchased by Miami franchisees James McLamore and David R. Edgerton, who shortened the name to Burger King. The pair ran it as an independent company for eight years before selling it to the Pillsbury Company in 1967 — the first of many transactions that would define the brand’s trajectory.

    As McDonald’s grew in the 1960s, its advertising focus was around its Ronald McDonald mascot, which began as part of a local TV sponsorship of “Bozo’s Circus.” After appearing in local TV spots, the iconic clown made his national TV ad debut during the 1965 Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade (which McDonald’s sponsored) and the 1966 Super Bowl.

    Along with the concept of fast food, McDonald’s helped lay the groundwork for how many franchised chains structure their marketing organizations. As the chain expanded in the 1960s, franchisees in 1967 began contributing 1% of earnings to the Operators National Advertising fund, growing McDonald’s ad budget from $5 million to $15 million in 1969 and $60 million by 1974, eventually making the chain one of the nation’s top advertisers.

    While McDonald’s led the way, Burger King was forced to establish its brand identity in contrast to its competitor. For example, McDonald’s had great success turning a franchisee’s creation, the Big Mac, into a menu staple; its “two all-beef patties, special sauce, lettuce, cheese, pickles, onions on a sesame-seed bun” formulation was a print ad and then a popular jingle. In kind, Burger King rolled out its “Have it your way” slogan and a jingle of its own that pushed back at the Big Mac’s specificity: “Hold the pickles, hold the lettuce. Special orders don’t upset us. All we ask is that you let us serve it your way!”

    McDonald’s continued to grow, expanding around the globe and notching $1 billion in sales in 1972. While Burger King had some success with its marketing in the ’70s — including its groundbreaking product tie-ins with “Star Wars” — the company faced internal struggles with its franchisees and hired executive Donald N. Smith away from McDonald’s to oversee a company revamp called “Operation Phoenix,” which focused on restructuring corporate practices at all levels of the business. When that plan didn’t work, Smith was replaced by Pillsbury executive Norman E. Brinker, who decided to bring the fight to McDonald’s.

    Massive campaign, historic flop

    Burger King took a big swing in 1985 with a $40 million campaign created by J. Walter Thompson. “Where’s Herb?” centered around a fictional character named Herb who had never eaten a Whopper.

    The marketer released a series of cryptic teasers in advance of the campaign’s TV spots. After six weeks of build-up, Burger King unveiled “Herb the Nerd” in a Super Bowl ad. The chain sent Herb on a tour of its locations, and the first person to spot him in each restaurant would win $5,000. Burger King also sold Whoppers for 99 cents to customers who ordered by saying “I’m not Herb.”

    The Herb campaign was a flop, lacking a relevant message about Burger King’s food or the audience it was targeting. Burger King’s profits fell 40% in 1986, and the chain would soon look for a new ad agency.

    In 1982, Burger King launched an ad campaign (starring a 4-year-old Sarah Michelle Gellar) that called out McDonald’s by name and claimed the chain’s burgers were 20% smaller than those of Burger King. The attack ad was a first — but certainly not the last — for the industry, and resulted in McDonald’s suing Burger King and agency J. Walter Thompson for what it described as a “false, deceptive, disparaging, unfair and misleading” campaign.

    “We’re mad and justifiably so. We think they must be in pretty bad shape if they must stoop to misleading advertising,” Sid Rudolph, chairman of Wendy’s parent company, said of the campaign, which also claimed his chain’s burgers had inferior taste.

    While the suit was eventually settled, the attack ads boosted same-store sales. However, Burger King would be in “pretty bad shape” again soon enough. Brinker left soon after the controversy and eventually founded Brinker International, the restaurant group that now owns Chili’s and Maggiano’s. Burger King was under pressure from McDonald’s — which was reportedly spending $80 million to $100 million to advertise its McDLT item — and upstart Wendy’s and its iconic “Where’s the beef?” campaign. It again turned to J. Walter Thompson to ask consumers a question of their own — “Where’s Herb?” — a historic flop about a character who had never eaten a Whopper in his life.

    “Where’s Herb?” would be the last Burger King campaign by J. Walter Thompson, and was followed by a string of agencies and unmemorable campaigns as various corporate overlords played hot potato with the Burger King brand until it was put up for sale in 2000 and purchased by a group of investment firms for $1.5 billion in 2002.

    Throughout the end of the 20th century, McDonald’s remained relatively loyal to its agency partners. Needham, Harper & Steers won the account in 1970 and kept it until 1981, when McDonald’s moved the account — despite Needham’s superior creative — to Leo Burnett USA, which had worked to win international pieces of an increasingly global marketing apparatus. The chain moved back to DDB Needham Worldwide, Chicago in 1997, where it would stay until McDonald’s posted its first-ever quarterly loss in 2003 amid tough competition and changing consumer tastes.

    Brooke Burke and The Burger King on set during a commercial shoot in Malibu, California, on Jan. 6, 2006.

    Eric Neitzel/WireImage via Getty Images


    Creative innovation, financial struggle

    After the earnings hiccup, McDonald’s quickly made plans to revitalize its business, which included a global agency competition. The surprising winner was Heye & Partner, a German subsidiary of DDB Worldwide, that created the “I’m lovin’ it” theme. McDonald’s rebounded quickly and began using a roster of shops on a per-project basis, and “I’m lovin’ it” — with its iconic “ba-da-da-da-da” melody and controversial origin story — has remained at the core of its marketing for nearly two decades.


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