For the better part of a decade, the former fast food giants McDonald's and Burger King have been losing business in the US, and have been subject to one desperate makeover campaign after another. Of the three burger giants, only Wendy's has been rising or holding steady. Why the exception?
Each generation that makes up the bulk of the customer base will reshape the fast food sector to its liking. Baby Boomers were buying fast food mostly for convenience -- for themselves during lunch break, and to avoid having to cook dinner for their children. It was part of their greater emphasis on career striving: less time cooking = more time billing.
But ever since Gen X-ers and Millennials came to spend most of the fast food dollars, the prevailing values have come from foodie one-upsmanship. It's part of the lifestyle striving of the generations for whom the path of career striving would lead to an already saturated niche of competition. They compete for status in the lifestyle arena instead.
The problem for McDonald's and Burger King in this new foodie-oriented climate is quite simply that they are saddled with a kiddie image in the personal memories of the target audience, which prevents them from being taken seriously as foodie-friendly restaurants.
McDonald's has had a children's clown as their mascot since the 1960s, not to mention all the other cartoony characters that have been added to their brand image over the years. Then there are the distinctly kid-focused Happy Meals, on-site playgrounds, kids' birthday parties (at least back in the '80s), and so on and so forth.
Burger King began marketing to children a little later, with the BK Kids Club that began around 1990, playgrounds, kids meals, cardboard crowns for kids to wear, etc.
Wendy's is the only one of the original corporate chains not to have lowered themselves to pandering to children. They offer kids meals, but they don't suffer from brand recognition the way that every Gen X-er and Millennial can remember the shape of the Happy Meal box with the arches on the handle, or the look and assembly of the BK cardboard crown. Wendy's never offered playgrounds, cartoon character mascots, or primary-color decor.
Not that Wendy's was branded as a sophisticated adult restaurant, but it was always meant to look and feel like a place for basically mature people, whether or not they brought children along with them. It didn't feel hostile toward children in the way that other decadent foodie places feel that cater to childless strivers, only that children weren't the focus of attention.
If you think back to childhood memories of the big three, you probably don't remember too much that was exciting about Wendy's, while McDonald's and Burger King light up all kinds of kiddie connotations.
Newly founded foodie places like Chipotle and Starbucks began with a blank slate for their branding, and were shaped by lifestyle striver values from the get-go. Wendy's may not have been a blank slate, but it was pretty close. It never really did conduct intense branding campaigns. All they had to overcome was the image of the avuncular founder Dave Thomas. But some soft-spoken guy from the Midwest already looked like his generation was leaving the stage, and his daughter would take over the family business. Enter the redhead chick playing Wendy in commercials, all grown up now to convince X-ers and Millennials that Wendy's has entered its hipper and younger foodie-friendly stage of life.
Somehow, going from an older and more sober image to a younger and more irreverent image is easier than transforming a kiddie image into a grown-up one. Perhaps it's the boundary between childhood and adolescence that makes the attempted re-launch of McDonald's and Burger King seem like such an unconvincing quantum leap.
We keep hearing all kinds of managerial hocus-pocus about being "nimble" and "agile" in the marketplace. It means shape-shifting from one clearly delineated image to another, as soon as the ground shifts just an inch.
Back on Planet Earth, that strategy takes the form of one desperate and unconvincing makeover after another -- McDonald's as purveyors of super-sized fries, then as multiculti global awareness ambassadors, then where the homos and homo-enablers sip their McCafe, and who knows what next. With Burger King's changing image -- from the BK Kids Club, to the CollegeHumor.com mascot of The King, to the caterers of the schlub army who are going to order junk food LIKE A MAN, to the neo-Midcentury Modern decor -- their agility has flushed the company right down the toilet.
Wendy's had a stable, nondescript brand for its first four decades, and subtly and seamlessly slipped into a fast casual image. It is now the only success story of the original burger chains in the age of the fickle foodie crowd, and it hardly did poor business during the earlier years when its competitors were nimbly shifting from one image into another. Wendy's was guided more by an attitude of stewardship and is winning the long game, while its spastic and agile rivals cashed in on the child-pandering craze of the '80s and '90s but have been doomed to struggling just to do the same level of American business as last year. Their only cushion is growth in the third world, where McDonald's carries prestige over tainted street food.
And should the market shift away from foodie-ism and back toward unpretentiousness, Wendy's could easily reverse the changes they've made, since they are not drastic or pervasive. Its menu is still limited and ordinary -- and timeless -- with trendy foodie-oriented items only coming through on a rotating basis, unlike the steady bloating of the menu at McDonald's with premium and niche items.
McDonald's and Burger King are allowing short-term opportunists to run the company into the ground with their protean agility, while steward-guided Wendy's will still be thriving for decades to come.