Burger King’s latest efforts to improve its perception among health-focused consumers has been successful so far and could have more staying power than similar efforts from McDonald’s, according to industry watchers.

On Sept. 24, Burger King introduced “Satisfries,” a lower-calorie version of its French fries, and followed the rollout — just two days before McDonald’s pledged to offer more salads, fruits and vegetables — during the annual meeting of the Clinton Global Initiative.

Burger King also followed up the rollout of the new fries with a PR stunt on Oct. 2 in which it changed the brand’s website and signage in a few markets to read, “Fries King, formerly Burger King.”

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One industry observer, New England Consulting Group chief executive Gary Stibel, called the low-calorie fries and corresponding marketing campaign an intelligent move for Miami-based Burger King. “What they’re doing is very smart. … What they’re saying isn’t that they have low-calorie fries, but that they have great-tasting fries with fewer calories,” Stibel said.

He also praised McDonald’s recent announcement, calling it “yet another incremental move on top of what they’ve done for healthfulness, which is a lot.”

However, Stibel noted, “Burger King’s announcement is even more powerful because while McDonald’s says, ‘We have all these other good things for you,’ Burger King is quietly saying that it is making what consumers already want better for them. Burger King is also toying with the consumer with that name change to Fries King and making a bigger deal out of this.”

Yet he thought the development of Satisfries was a more significant change for Burger King, allowing the brand to compete by altering a standard menu item in a way that would let more people eat it or eat more of it, similar to the development of light beer.

“Brewers said, ‘We know you, and we know that you like beer, so this allows you to drink more of what you like to drink,’” Stibel said. “Burger King is moving in that direction, saying, ‘We know you love your French fries, so we’ll make them less caloric.’”

Burger King builds buzz

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A new survey supports Stibel’s notion that Burger King helped its perceptions among consumers with the introduction of Satisfries, perhaps even more than McDonald’s did with its announcement that it would let customers substitute side salads for French fries in its meals.

According to consumer perception research service YouGov BrandIndex, since the Satisfries launch, Burger King improved its measurements of “buzz” and word-of-mouth promotion among two key constituencies: parents and adults who consider themselves to be in good or excellent health. While McDonald’s also improved those metrics with the same consumer groups, the data showed Burger King’s gains to have slightly more staying power.

BrandIndex calculates its buzz score by surveying thousands of consumers every day about different brands, asking, “If you’ve heard anything about this brand in the last two weeks, was it positive or negative?” Negative responses are subtracted from positive ones, and each day a moving average is calculated between negative 100 and positive 100, with a zero rating denoting neutral buzz.

Burger King’s buzz score among health-focused respondents rose from 14.9 to 16.1 the day Satisfries rolled out on Sept. 24, peaking at 19.3 for three consecutive days the next week and settling at 15.5 on Oct. 3.

Among parents, that score for Burger King was 23.7 on Sept. 24 and peaked at 28.4 three days later. Burger King’s buzz score among parents had been as low as 1.4, its score 10 days before the Satisfries launch. By Oct. 3, the brand’s buzz score settled at 17 with parents.

By contrast, McDonald’s buzz score among consumers rating themselves in good shape rose from 6.8 the day before to 8.8 on Sept. 26, the day the Oak Brook, Ill.-based chain announced changes to its menu that would allow for more fruits and vegetables to be sold to adults and in kids’ meals. That score peaked at 15.3 two days later and ended at 13.2 on Oct. 3.

Parents’ rating of McDonald’s buzz rose from 28.3 to 32.4 on Sept. 26, rising as high as 35.9 the next day, before falling sharply and ending at 7.1 on Oct. 3.

In other words, Burger King’s buzz score ended the period higher than McDonald’s, for both health-focused respondents and parents.

Something to talk about

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BrandIndex also found in its research that Burger King’s and McDonald’s health-focused announcements drove greater word-of-mouth promotion, which the firm calculates by asking its survey respondents which brands they’ve discussed with friends and family over the preceding two weeks.

Among health-focused consumers, Burger King’s word-of-mouth score rose from 13 to 14.9 the day Satisfries rolled out, rising to a peak of 16.2 six days later and settling at 13.2 on Oct. 3. For parents, the brand’s word-of-mouth score was 23.7 on Sept. 24, when the new fries launched, and reached a peak of 28.4 three days later before falling steadily to 16.2 on Oct. 3.

McDonald’s word-of-mouth score among health-focused consumers rose to 24.8 the day it announced its fruit-and-vegetable initiative, compared with 23.4 the day before. It reached a peak of 26.7 two days later and also fell steadily to 18.7 on Oct. 3.

Parents’ word-of-mouth score for McDonald’s — which ranged widely from a low of negative 10 on Sept. 14 to 32.4 on Sept. 26, when the brand made its announcement — peaked at 35.9 the day after the chain said it would sell more fruits and vegetables. That word-of-mouth score withered the most, to 7.1 on Oct. 3.

Ted Marzilli, chief executive of New York-based BrandIndex, surmised that the word-of-mouth score did not increase as much for McDonald’s as it did for Burger King after their respective announcements, perhaps because McDonald’s scale and advertising strength give it a much higher base of awareness already.

“I think this is due to McDonald’s being part of the conversation about the QSR space to a much greater degree than Burger King,” Marzilli said. “McDonald’s does have a higher percentage of consumers seeing and hearing things about it, so its announcement is more likely to get lost in the sea of other things that people are seeing and hearing about the brand.”

Contact Mark Brandau at mark.brandau@penton.com.
Follow him on Twitter: @Mark_from_NRN