the opinion in imho

Apparently my “Outside Insights” column, How to Defeat McDonald’s**,  on QSR Magazine‘s home page has prompted concern among the folks at McDonald’smcdonalds logoIt was intended as a service piece for fast feeders looking for insights on how to establish competitive advantage — but the Golden Arches media relations team seems to view it as a judgmental report on their strategies.

Quite frankly, I’m surprised by their reaction — but I’m curious to hear what you think.  Here’s the original piece, followed by the comments submitted by a McDonald’s spokesperson (she initially emailed these comments to me with a request for a correction to be issued.)

My “Outside Insights” column:

How to Defeat McDonald’s**
Taking advantage of a competitor’s innovation could mean rewards for any company—no matter the size.

Quick-serves fight in a hypercompetitive environment. Brands duke it out with surprising new products which seem like punches coming out of nowhere and low blows of heavy discounts or free giveaways—not to mention the pot shots lobbed between dueling sassy advertising campaigns.

All of the category in-fighting can lead to a tit-for-tat approach to marketing in which companies counter each other’s moves with products and deals so similar it’s no wonder consumers often confuse one brand’s promotions for another. This kind of combat is necessary to sustain traffic counts, but quick-serves should also be on the lookout for opportunities to rise above the fray, dominate their challengers, and solidify a sustainable victory.

Burger King has such an opportunity now. McDonald’s has blinked, setting its sights on Starbucks and launching a $100 million advertising spend to promote its new coffees. McDonald’s describes McCafé as its largest product launch in 30 years and promises many more McCafé experiences to come.

Regardless of whether or not these efforts will be successful, having all of McDonald’s eggs in one basket is good news for Burger King. Burger King can fill the void in the conversation about food and promote the superiority of its food preparation and products. Lately Burger King hasn’t been talking about its key product differentiators—flame broiling and Have It Your Way—but now is the perfect time to bring them to the forefront. These product attributes are the brand’s strongest competitive advantages, and McDonald’s has left itself open for attack.

McDonald’s isn’t the only quick-serve that has made itself vulnerable. Chinks in the armor usually emerge during launches of ancillary products, PR blunders, or M&A activity. Both Pizza Hut and Baskin-Robbins have recently blinked, pouring millions of dollars into pasta and soft-serve ice cream introductions respectively. By neglecting their core businesses and vying for consumers’ attention in new categories, these brands have created great opportunities for their competitors.

Challengers can take advantage of these opportunities by:

Acting fast: The window of opportunity may not last long. Fortunately most chains aren’t shy about touting big plans, so if you’re astute enough to sense a “blink” in the making, you can be at the ready to launch an offensive attack as soon the other guy’s initial media burst starts to trail off.

Hitting them hard: This is the time to leverage your core competitive strengths. Shore up what you do best and promote the heck out of it. If necessary, you may have to be overt about your strategy—perhaps calling out your competitor for its foolishness may be the best way to draw attention to your offering.

Staying focused: It may be tempting to follow your competitor’s moves or to take a breather while the pressure is off. But attempts to engage in the new game would only seem like efforts to compensate for a weakness—and backing off wastes the opportunity. A confident, offensive move is what’s called for.

By going for the punch when the competition isn’t looking, quick-serves have the chance to differentiate themselves in a meaningful and memorable way. Instead of fighting over chump change or market share gains of a few hundredths of a percent, a well-timed, well-placed push can secure a big win.

Case in point: Earlier this year when it seemed that Burger King was the one with its eye off the ball, McDonald’s made a big gain. McDonald’s had blanketed the market with dollar deals while Burger King was off featuring a tie-in with a TV series. The result? McDonald’s comp store sales rose 4 percent in the first quarter, while Burger King’s were only up 1 percent.

With competition so fierce in the quick-service arena, brands must exploit every advantage. Those who are fighting to win will be ready to hit with their best shot when the other guy isn’t looking and let the consumer declare a T.K.O.

Comment submitted by McDonald’s spokesperson:

My name is Danya Proud, and I serve as a company spokesperson for McDonald’s USA.

This article is missing a lot of the facts about our business and how we continue to promote our core menu items and customer favorites.

We most definitely don’t have, “all our eggs in one basket,” as this article suggests. These assumptions are not only incorrect, but misleading to QSR’s readers, and our customers.

I would be remiss if I didn’t point out the tremendous success we have had, and continue to have, through promoting our core menu – including Big Mac, Chicken McNuggets and most recently, Quarter Pounder with Cheese.

And, while McCafe Coffees and the promotion of our new line of mochas, lattes, cappucinos and hot chocolate continue to be a significant area of focus, and business opportunity for us, rest assured, we have not, and will not, take our eyes off the fries, or, any of our other core menu items, for that matter.

As always, we continue to have a holistic approach to all of our marketing efforts, to ensure a balance between promoting new menu items and our core equities.

Our customers are at the center of everything we do. Now more than ever, we are looking to provide our valued customers with everyday affordability, across our entire menu.

Thanks for the opportunity to provide the facts about our business.

What do you think?

I’m surprised that McDonald’s would take my POV as a factual report on their business — and be concerned enough to write their own “correction.”  I’m a strong advocate for managing all of a brand’s touchpoints, but this seems to be taking it a bit too far.

Am I wrong?  Also, please let me know what you think of the piece itself.  Thanks!

** FYI:  I had submitted a different title for the piece (“When the Other Guy Blinks”) — QSR Magazine’s editor changed it to “How to Defeat McDonald’s” — perhaps that caused more ire?!

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  • That’s pretty funny. Sounds like a junior communications person who is trying to add some authority to her voice by claiming correction, but who seems to lack a real in-depth perspective and doesn’t really address what you are saying at all. You could look at this as “McDonald’s responds!” or “McDonald’s hires junior staff and hands them Google Alerts.” McDonald’s doesn’t know how to be part of the conversation and missed an opportunity here.

  • Probably easy to come off as defensive – maybe McDonald’s could have benefited from “sleeping on it.” That email on Tuesday would probably look a bit different than the one you received, if it even comes at all. Unlike Steve, I think they joined in the conversation – maybe not in the way we would have done it, but certainly in professional manner that is far from the worst that we’ve ever seen (Just thinking back to Horizon Realty earlier this week!). Kudos to you, DLY, for writing a cool initial piece – a nice SWOT that provides a nice playbook for competitiveness. Kudos too, I think, to McD’s for stepping up to the fight and saying they’re not about to blink.

    All that being said, your original title submitted to QSR would have gone a long way to averting McD’s defensiveness. I think your title is a better title anyway.

  • Hi, Ms. Yohn…
    I consider this more of a conversation starter on how certain brands are taking bloggers more seriously in their approach to their communications strategies. It appears that McDonald’s is being fairly aggressive regarding messages about their brand. Also consider that QSR Magazine is one of this brand’s, as with many quick service restaurants, most important trades. The PR team probably also considered your reach and influence with your audience. Count it a compliment in some respects. You’ve not only been heard, but you have potential impact–at least in their eyes. Other brands have other policies about how and when and if one should respond to a blogger’s commentary. Remember that McDonald’s as a brand is not yet on Twitter. They are ultra concerned about controlling their brand’s messages online. From what I’ve read, they do more “listening” online than “talking.” They only recently, within months, began to tweet under the name “McCafeYourDay”–with a communications manager at the “wheel.” Criticizing their choice to respond is probably only advised once you truly understand their PR 2.0 strategy…and honestly, most of us only obtained a glimpse of it from the outside, so we don’t know the whole of it.
    They’ve been a marketing force to be reckoned with thus far in history. I can only bet that they are putting some solid though to this before responding. But who is perfectly handling this brave new world we call the social webs? I suggest no one just yet.

    [also posted this comment on my blog with a link…be sure to visit and leave comments.]

  • > Criticizing their choice to respond is probably only advised once you truly understand their PR 2.0 strategy

    I disagree strongly. That logic would exclude most of us from criticizing or critiquing most everything. Certainly the author of a work has a justified point of view in regard to feedback they receive. Certainly Denise’s audience, while not McDonald’s insiders, has an informed perspective. Isn’t that the point of a forum like this?

    Maybe I’m not not understanding your point.

  • I think Michelle is right–QSR magazine is an important trade magazine for McDonald’s so it felt the need to put its POV to its franchisees.

    I think you hit a nerve with your observation about the amount of investment McD’s has been putting into McCafe. I can imagine that there’s already a “back to basics” movement among the franchises and that McD’s is trying to keep its troops in line.

    I think your point about taking advantage of competitive innovation is a good one. Once McD’s decided to take on Starbucks and Dunkin’ Donuts in a big battle over coffee, there’s definitely an opening for Burger King or any other competitor to take a bite out of the core business. McD’s knows that it’s open to such an attack and that’s why it is defensive in its reaction to your post.

  • I feel your insights regarding brand strategy are right on target. El Pollo Loco is a case in point, such as when it studied KFC’s strategy for its grilled chicken promotion and took advantage of not only every step but every misstep, including KFC’s Oprah coupon that was not redeemable on Mother’s Day.
    McDonald’s has worked hard to get back on No. 1 with its Plan to Win and is very protective of its message, as Michelle Smith points out. Martin Bishop also makes a good point, which is why McDonald’s Plan to Win doesn’t include focusing only on McCafe but its core products as well. But with all that McCafe advertising out there, it’s easy to miss the reminders about the Big Mac.