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McDonald's Misses Out on Joke and Marketing Coup

Maggie Edinger

For a company that has a clown for a mascot, Steve Easterbrook, CEO of McDonald's, doesn't have a very good sense of humor. Mr. Easterbrook shattered the grease-laden dreams of burger lovers and fast food aficionados everywhere this morning with his terse reply to Burger King's McWhopper Proposal.

In a series of full-page ads taken out by Burger King in the New York Times and Chicago Tribune, the #2 player in the burger category ran an open letter to McDonald's proposing the two burger titans essentially halt the "burger wars" for one day to raise awareness for United Nations Peace Day on September 21.

To drive home the message of peace and unity, Burger King suggested the creation of the McWhopper, a combination Big Mac-Whopper, which would be sold at a pop-up store by the two companies on Peace Day. All proceeds would go to the nonprofit Peace One Day, of which Burger King is a corporate sponsor.

The buzz on social media around the McWhopper Proposal hit a fever pitch right before Mr. Easterbrook quickly put the kibosh on the whole thing in a Facebook post. His response to the Burger King campaign was the corporate equivalent of being broken up with by text message. He passed on the joint effort and included a humorless, "P.S. A simple phone call will do next time."

In looking at the vetoed McWhopper Proposal, it's worth taking into consideration the implications for McDonald's, Burger King and Peace One Day to determine where the real lessons are here for marketers.

Was there a tactful way for McDonald's to say no?

The response from the CEO of McDonald's to Burger King would have consumers believe Burger King had not first consulted McDonald's about this campaign. By ambushing McDonald's in this way, Burger King was forcing the category leader's hand. But was Burger King putting Mickey D's in an impossible position to say no? There was definitely a better way out of this situation than the route McDonald's ultimately took.

In 2013, Oreo found itself in a similar situation with Kit Kat. Kit Kat challenged Oreo on Twitter to a game of tic-tac-toe. Rather than outright refuse to the engage, Oreo entered the conversation on its own terms and paid Kit Kat a compliment. While the Oreo-Kit Kat interaction was limited to social media, it offers a great example of how McDonald's might have delivered a "no thanks" in a more endearing, on-brand fashion.

What's next for Burger King?

Just because McDonald's had beef with the McWhopper campaign doesn't mean it's necessarily game over for Burger King. The number one burger maker's loss could mean an opportunity for Burger King to partner up with Wendy's, Sonic or any of the other segment leaders on this same initiative. Such a partnership would allow Burger King to follow through on its corporate social responsibility efforts, while also posing a competitive threat to McDonald's.

Particularly for one of the newer or smaller brands in the burger category with less of a national following (e.g. Culver's, Jack in the Box), a responding ad campaign to Burger King's McWhopper Proposal offering to join forces could go a long way.

Who is the ultimate winner of the McWhopper Proposal?

Early votes on social media have chalked up the McWhopper campaign as a "win" for Burger King. In terms of creative muscle, Burger King definitely does look like a winner. But, I would argue that Peace One Day really came out on top.

The increased awareness around Peace One Day and Peace Day aren't contingent on the participation of McDonald's or the actual success of a pop-up shop in a single city. Rather the massive wave of discussion of the McWhopper Proposal has helped to increase visibility around the nonprofit's cause. Considering that was Burger King's objective from the beginning - I'd say they've accomplished their mission. End of Story

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