There’s a good chance you’ve talked more about Taco Bell than Burger King these last few years and nobody is more aware of that than Burger King. Kooky mashups for a junk food audience — whose members include our most beloved of drunkards and stoners — apparently play extremely well in the market these days, as Taco Bell epicly taught everyone with their Doritos Locos Taco. And that’s exactly why Burger King’s research team is going for broke, and they may just go broke trying to do it.
See, what may have initially popped into the national dialogue as a cheap and screwball foodie gimmick has become a cornerstone of Taco Bell’s menu. The chain has sold more than a billion Doritos Locos Tacos since their 2012 launch and it’s responsible for significantly growing the business as a whole to the tune of 15,000 new hires that first year alone, which totaled to two or three new employees per location.
Burger King has finally grasped the wondrous impact of what-if, or at least realized it doesn’t have to only be Taco Bell out there making bonkers, hard-to-believe fan favorites. Two new items are currently being tested out at select Burger Kings across the country, both of which seemingly target the same college freshmen audience that Taco Bell did.
The first is the Whopperito, which is — exactly as its namesake suggests — the chain’s beloved Whopper burger in “burrito” form. The other dish, definitely more of the experimental late-night variety, is Mac ‘n Cheetos. The best way to describe it is a big Cheeto puff that’s stuffed with mac ‘n cheese. Depending how you spend your time — whether on a yoga mat or on a frat couch — it will likely make your heart explode for two entirely different reasons.
You largely have social media to thank for all this. Back in the day, fast food chains couldn’t really go all-out with TV buys, print ads, and billboards for gimmick items. Campaigns weren’t worth the money if the focal point might only be a momentary grab for attention. But now you have the talkative populations of Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Vine, Tumblr, Pinterest, and Google+ ready to go crazy via word of mouth, or more appropriately, word of tech. The chains have influence they don’t have to pay for and it’s making for a competitive spree to design the perfect junk food mashup — and we get to devour all of it (and see a doctor on the regular because obviously).
But there’s a problem.
Burger King isn’t Taco Bell — and Burger King doesn’t realize that. Taco Bell knew what it was doing and it wasn’t as crazy as Burger King has assumed and is now banking on.
When Taco Bell unveiled its Doritos Locos Taco, it was off the wall, but it wasn’t out of nowhere. It made sense to us as a weird, fun menu addition, and we chalked it up to Taco Bell more or less vibing like some goofball friend over the years. But that wasn’t it. The reason the Doritos Locos Taco made sense to us wasn’t because ‘of course Taco Bell would do this silly thing.’ No, the new, screwball item was hyper-sensible to us because, when broken down, it was only a slight change.
Taco Bell didn’t suddenly start serving taco-flavored pho or something. They just introduced a different, more sassed-up taco shell. It was the perfect balance of wild and safe. From there, they could move effortlessly into exciting future iterations — Cool Ranch, Chile Lime, et cetera — all the while keeping their menu intriguing, yet cohesive, without ever appearing desperate.
Meanwhile, Burger King is suddenly attempting to be our super-cool, in-the-know aunt or uncle after years of serving us clothes at Christmas. Indeed, Burger King is absolutely on the right track, as experimentation can prove spectacular, but the effort is currently misguided. Neither the Whopperito or Mac ‘n Cheetos are going to achieve what Taco Bell has done, because both of Burger King’s new items are clearly a Hail Mary.
The Doritos Locos Taco altered one ingredient for Taco Bell’s flagship menu item, the taco. It was certainly a buzz-worthy adjustment, but their food scientists didn’t turn the taco into a damn sandwich. For Burger King, the actual equivalent of the Doritos Locos Taco would be a series of flavored buns. But they haven’t created anything in this exploratory phase that has a foreseeable future of delightfully awaited tweaks.
The problem with the Whopperito is that it ends where it begins. Otherwise, the only way Burger King can reiterate whatever magic they assume is (hopefully) soon coming with this is if they keep exhaust various formats. But are you really going to eat a Whopper as a little pizza someday? No, you already have a beloved pizza place or two. But people will forever go to Taco Bell for tacos, regardless of the shell’s flavor, because that’s what they’re known for.
As for the Mac ‘n Cheetos, that’s not even close to Burger King’s identity. It’s like they threw a machete in a game of darts. It’s loud, crazy, and attention-grabbing, but it’s not sustainable and nobody’s going to think that’s how the game should be played from now on.
In short, Burger King is frantically trying out short-term solutions to correct an indefinite gap of market understanding. So have it your way, I guess, Burger King. If you need me, I’ll be at Taco Bell.