Kevin Chesters on Burger King vs McDonald's: Why I'm not entirely lovin' it

Kevin Chesters is the partner/chief strategy officer of The Harbour Collective.

Burger King vs McDonald's: I know which one I'm lovin'

This is about fast food. But, before you yawn and move on, I want to make it clear that this isn’t another article about mouldy Whoppers. I promise.

I want to talk about Burger King's creative work. Particularly in the context of how it compares to their great rival, McDonald's. Burger King have received lots of industry awards, largely for one-off stunts, in the last few years. If industry column inches are any measure, then they are about to get a lot more award-shaped pats-on-the-back for that mouldy thing too.

There have been far fewer plaudits (and column inches) handed out for work on McDonald's over the last few years. I can’t understand this as a comms professional. When it comes to where I think the real industry high-fives should go, I am squarely and unashamedly on Team Ronald.

As a disclaimer, I don’t work for McDonald's, on their account, have no shares and I have nothing to do with Leo Burnett or any of their sister agencies. I am just a massive fan of good creative work.

I don’t think any other account in the UK has creatively delivered as consistently as McDonald's in the last two decades. I frequently see campaigns for Ikea and John Lewis mentioned as examples long-running creatively fecund, commercially successful agency/client partnerships (and rightly so) but I rarely see McDonald's mentioned in the same lists. I find this odd.

I was first properly beguiled by ‘People Passing By’ in 2009. I could go back further but I’ll start with that piece because it was so full of charming customer insight that I find myself returning to it time and time again. I loved the film from 2013 with the stepdad and the kid – ‘No, you’re alright’.

A great example of tapping into cultural zeitgeist without self-consciously shouting about it. I wrote a lot about the 'Bereavement' ad in 2017 because it was another example of flawless storytelling from great insight. I thought the #ReindeerReady work was one of the best Christmas ads of 2019, although it was rarely mentioned in industry lists. The System 1 research methodology gave it 4.8 stars on their rating system, which would place it in the top 5% of ads ever tested!

But maybe the main reason that I am more Team McDonald's than Team Burger King is that they consistently put out great work for proper campaigns on proper briefs. Real work, in all the traditional channels supported by proper media budgets, year after year.

I have a sneaky feeling that the only people who really see the stunts like 'Mouldy Burger' or 'Hiding Whoppers' are for people who work in the industry, journalists or awards juries consisting of combinations of those two groups.

I think McDonald's is focused far more on people and a bit less on Lions. I have a sneaking suspicion that they’re not in the least bit worried by how many statuettes Burger King's PR stunts garner. They're more focused on the tills. The publicly available numbers for how McDonalds is doing in the UK versus their rival would also seem to bear this out.

But beyond consistent creative excellence, I also love the McDonald's work because it plays into some of my core beliefs about what leads to great, effective work.

1 – It is built on great human insight. Take that latest ‘Rhythm of the Night’ work from McDonald's – just a lovely observation, to deliver a simple product benefit (open 24/7), produced beautifully. Stunts like hiding Big Macs behind Whoppers smack to me of a company obsessed with itself and its own cleverness, rather than one that understands how its products show up in the real world with real people. The best McDonald's work is about the consumer, rather than a self-conscious, self-obsession about industry plaudits. I’ve always thought that McDonald's work holds a smart and sensitive mirror up to British society. The Burger King work helps me to remember when awards season is starting.

2 – The quality of McDonald's creative work is a great example of what comes from long term loyalty to a client and agency relationship. Great work comes from risk. Risk comes from trust. Trust comes from a long-term relationship and shared values. The investment McDonalds have put into their agency relationship is what has led to such consistently brilliant and effective work. All the best work I’ve done has been as a result of a great client relationship.

3 – McDonald's seems to totally understand that the keyword in Binet & Field’s “The Long and the Short of It” isn’t ‘long’ or ‘short’, but 'and'. The McDonald's work is a masterclass in doing the right job at the right time in the right media. The balance between the activation telling me about the provenance of the milk and meat with the brand epics on the telly is an almost flawless example of the Binet & Field model. I’m surprised more people don’t laud it as such. And it has been a very long-running, provable business success story as a result too.

So, there you go. In all the billions of words that were flying around about the 'Mouldy Whopper' people might have forgotten what is important. Most people don’t really care about those clever stunts that juries like. Most people don’t see them for starters because they’re too busy not reading columns like this. They still tend to see work on the telly box, with budget behind it, talking about burgers. Or talking to them with emotionally resonant storytelling that tugs at their heartstrings and loosens their purse-strings.

This might be symptomatic of why our industry is facing some of the issues that it is. Or why clients increasingly look to consultants to solve their big brand and business challenges.

We should be helping to create big creative platforms - that can support both brand and tactical campaigns.

We should be focused on real creative solutions to solve proper client problems. We should be thinking bigger about the long and the short of it. We should be thinking about campaign platforms that can last rather than one-off shiny marbles. We should be helping clients to think about brand worlds that can influence all areas of the marketing mix, not just about PR stunts that tend to fade like ships in the night. I think we’re more useful to our clients when we do. From most of the ones I’m talking to at the moment, they seem to think so too.

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