McFlop? Nope—Burger King’s snubbed PR stunt still kinda worked

by | Sep 1, 2015 | Public Relations, Social Media

When Burger King ran a series of full-page ads in the The New York Times and the Chicago Tribune proposing that McDonald’s team up with them on Peace Day for the “McWhopper”, its playful offering of the olive branch didn’t go so well.

McDonald’s CEO Steve Easterbrook served up a too-cool-for-school open letter on Facebook (“A simple phone call will do next time”) with a side of shame: “Let’s acknowledge that between us there is simply a friendly business competition and certainly not the unequaled circumstances of the real pain and suffering of war.” BK’s elaborate proposal boiled down to a simple concept — a one-day-only pop-up restaurant with all profits going to the charity Peace One Day — and Burger King had already designed everything right down to the packaging and hashtag #settlethebeef. But McDonald’s refused to bite. People called out the chain for being grumps—and just as swiftly, other brands attempted to insert themselves into the dialogue with “peace burgers.” Disillusioned fast food fans made heartbreaking DIY attempts. Nothing worked—McDonald’s wouldn’t budge. Instead, they promised a more “meaningful global effort” but so far, no word on what that plan entails. But one thing their little exchange did accomplish? Lots of media attention. Using MediaMiser software, we tracked news coverage from the day of the proposal (August 26) to August 28. During that time, McDonald’s received 2,180 mentions in articles—slightly more than Burger King, which pulled in 2,083. For both brands, approximately 80 percent of brand mentions first occurred in the headline.

For context, from a total of 2,216 articles tracked from May 7 – August 28, 91 per cent of McDonald’s mentions occurred in our three-day sample. It seems both sides got a boost in coverage, but had McDonald’s accepted the invite, maybe the stunt could have netted an even bigger media circus? Could those likeability points have helped out sales as McDonald’s stumbles its way through a landscape of changing (read: healthier) consumer tastes? Could it have been a momentary break from headlines about a company in trouble–with the narrative getting so bad that McDonald’s recently decided to make its monthly sales reports private?

Tim Carman of The Washington Post says there are a few ways to view this one: as an insincere effort to raise a competitor’s profile at the expense of the market leader, ie. McDonald’s, or as Burger King’s genuine “attempt at a corporate allegory”. Maybe McDonald’s resented being painted into a corner on a public stage — after all, the two could have collaborated on the project behind the scenes instead — but their CEO didn’t consider optics: marketing ploy or not, how will this make us look if we say no? Andrew Collins, CEO of Mailman Group, says that Burger King has shown it’s more in tune with the millennial audience by bringing its proposal out for public debate. McDonald’s could have sparked a massive social media discussion by saying “Great idea, we love it. But it’s not our decision, let the people decide #McWhopper”, but instead brought down a corporate iron fist. Lost opportunity? There’s no way to know for sure, but with zero investment and a substantial number of headlines, perhaps Easterbrook’s next memo to the kind folks at Burger King should be a thank you card.

Hartley Butler George