Dethroned! How Wendy's Slayed Burger King in the Fast-Food Wars

One focused on funny ads. One focused on food. Guess who won?

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Yesterday, it became official: Wendy's has usurped Burger King as America's second largest burger chain. It finished 2011 with more U.S. revenue, despite operating 1,300 fewer stores. The news, though largely expected -- The Wall Street Journal anticipated the "palace coup" back in December -- is a milestone in the history of fast food. McDonald's, Burger King, and Wendy's have ordered one, two, and three in the nation's burger economy for about as long as the three of them have been in business. But no longer.  

What finally upended that time-honored hierarchy? To find out, I called Darren Tristano, executive vice president of food industry research firm Technomic, which made the call that Burger King had fallen to number three while compiling its annual ranking of the country's chain restaurants. 

Tristano's core point was very simple. Over the past several years Burger King has focused on ads. Wendy's focused on its food. Turns out, when you're running a restaurant, food matters more.

In 2004, under the guidance of ad agency Crispin Porter & Bugusky, Burger King unveiled a new version of its old mascot, The King, and began working him into a series of commercials targeted primarily at, well, dudes. Or bros. Or frat boys. Whatever you like to call that certain species of young gentlemen likely to crave a Whopper after downing a few cans of Keystone Light. According to Slate contributor Seth Stevenson, Crispin had "decided to laser-focus all its marketing on BK's 'superfans' -- meaning young dudes who eat fast food on a nearly daily basis." The King 2.0 wore an always-smiling plastic mask and had an unnerving habit of showing up in people's beds and windows, then staring silently, like a burger mongering Michael Myers (or, as in this ad, King Kong). 


The King spots weren't the only Burger King ads targeted at the Tucker Max demographic. One included bikini-clad babes bouncing on a trampoline, riding a horse, and chowing down on a burger "so big" they had to share. Another featured a giant hen parading around in lingerie for her boyfriend while he sat back on their couch. "Chicken, just the way you like it," promised the voice-over. 

As a few journalists have pointed out since, the last decade was a superbly bad time to focus your company's whole marketing strategy on young males, who as a demographic were socked by the recession. But a poorly focused ad campaign won't bring a company down by itself. While Burger king was busy appealing to America's young, hungry men on TV, it was also neglecting its menu. Most of its big changes involved aping McDonalds, such as adding soft serve ice cream and low-priced cheeseburgers, Tristano told me. One spot even featured The King himself breaking into McDonalds' heavily guarded headquarters, Mission Impossible style, to steal its sausage, egg and cheese recipe. The tag-line: "It's not that orginal, but it's super affordable."

Wendy's, Tristano said, took the opposite route. The company had always staked its image on using fresher ingredients than its competition, serving burger patties that had never been frozen, for instance. So it chose to double down on that strategy. In its most high profile move, the chain redesigned its old, square burgers, which focus groups said looked processed, and created a thicker patty using a looser cut of meat, meant to mimic the upstart better-burger chains like Five Guys. 

But there were other, subtler moves. One of Wendy's major initiatives in recent years was a new breakfast menu. It included a line of fairly standard morning sandwiches. But the company chose to make them using freshly cracked eggs -- a fact it eagerly promoted. "Think about that. You don't think about the fact that a lot of restaurants use powder eggs or mix eggs," Tristano said. "Those types of marketing strategies resonate with freshness, resonate with better for you. And that resonates with customers." 

In other words, good marketing starts with a good product. Burger King missed that, believing that a sense of humor would make customers overlook a tired menu. Now, it's attempting to change course. In August, it retired The King, and announced its revamped marketing approach would be "more food-centric." It's first order of business: a new burger

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Jordan Weissmann is a senior associate editor at The Atlantic.

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