McDonald’s and Burger King: Brand War or Duopoly?

I grew up with perhaps the most intense brand war of all-time. This was epitomized in the famous taste-tests between Coke and Pepsi. Both colas were nearly 100 years old when the Pepsi Challenge was launched in 1975. Most consumers favoured the flavour of Pepsi. This war has raged since and has not only been fought on product differentiation but through endorsement marketing, global advertising, and sports and entertainment sponsorship. 

Another war was fought between adidas and PUMA. I call adidas the winner in this brawl. It was very much a Cain and Abel story, given the two brands resulted from the split between siblings in the Dassler Brothers Sports Shoe Company. Now global brands, when the defining battles took place, this sneaker war was primarily in the European theater. The fight continued until the brother’s passing’s, “even in death the two brothers couldn’t stand each other as they were buried at opposite ends of the cemetery from one another.”[1]

Do you remember the Console Wars? Nintendo, who once controlled almost 90% of the gaming industry, doth did battle with Sega. This was to be a case of Mortal Kombat (all pun intended). The treasure at the end of this big game was a US$60 billion-dollar industry. Each company pumped out new hardware and accessories that supported ever more complex games. Analysts conclude Nintendo won due to Sega’s techy missteps. Market share and revenue certainly bears this out.

Apple has been a battler. It took on Samsung over cellphones. Legal battles on patents and infringements raged. Billions were spent on legal fees and settlements were similarly large. That is no surprise given the market at stake. And, let’s not forget, the famous Apple versus Microsoft computer fisticuffs that was dramatized in a series of ads. Metaphorically, two actors showed the differences between the two brands, one was staid and nerdy and the other relaxed and hip.

There have been other conflicts. Chick-fil-A and Popeyes set up lines of battle on social media, primarily on Twitter, to fight the Chicken Sandwich Wars of 2019. While the two brands and traditional media promoted the scrap, it was largely clap backs, or a slightly digitalized overblown taste test battle. BMW and Audio entered into a billboard scrape that was episodically entertaining but more of a skirmish than all-out war.

To me, the most interesting decades-long clash is the Burger Wars. In recent years, the conflagration between McDonald’s and Burger King has given the appearance of a supremely hot war. A series of campaigns from either side has appeared to shift the frontlines (war metaphors really apply here). Both attack the other’s equally creepy mascot while, in other instances, cooperated to use them for social causes (the King and Clown have kissed to endorse LGBT rights). 

I could go on and on with examples of how the two have gone at each other. Here are a few. In 2017, Burger King offered a free Whopper to everyone coming dressed as a clown on Halloween. Once Burger King held back on serving Whoppers to support McDonald’s cause to raise money for kids fighting cancer. Burger King loves to hit at quality and quantity differences in the two chain’s menus while McDonald’s rests on familiarity and ubiquity.

Burger King has definitely dominated the Burger War when it comes to advertising. In social media, they are nimble, clever and quick. One digital ploy was quite cheeky. In the Burger King app, users could “burn” a McDonald’s ad and receive a coupon for a Whopper (do they ever actually sell a Whopper or just give them away?). The net result was, the more McDonald’s put out in advertising, the more advertising and foot traffic was created for Burger King.

One of my favourite campaigns from this ongoing war was an attempt at a ceasefire. For Peace Day 2015, Burger King sent a public proposal to McDonald’s suggesting they jointly develop the McWhopper. The stated goal was to inspire real-world change. McDonald’s eventually declined the proposal which I think was a historic miss. Could you imagine both brands putting out the decadent hybrid? I would have tried one. The joint equity would have been substantial. As it was, Burger King took that battle by the virtue of having a solid creative idea.

Consumers took to social media in support of the McWhopper. Fast food fans actually bought Big Macs and Whoppers and combined the two burgers to create their own McWhopper. The tall stacked frankensteins were shared widely online and eventually devoured. 

The original peace offering subsequently developed into a larger partnership. Other restaurants loved the idea, so the Peace Day Burger was born. It was a collaboration between Denny’s, Wayback Burgers, Krystal, Giraffas USA, and of course, Burger King. The Peace Day Burger combined all the tastiest ingredients from the restaurants’ signature sandwiches. It was offered for one day only in Atlanta at a pop-up restaurant. 1,500 sandwiches were free on a first come, first served basis. I would have loved one.

Let’s get back to the subject at hand. These brand wars all share the same characteristics except for the Burger War. Coke and Pepsi remain antagonist in tone even though they have had some collaboration in the past. It is definitely a battle and now with many more soft drink players, the industry is tough, arguably cutthroat.

What makes the Burger War unique is the feel that there is now some collusion between McDonald’s and Burger King. The war has taken on a different tone and tempo. It is like two world leaders got into a room and agreed that the globe is big enough for the two of them (sound familiar?). This colourful historic hamburger conflict has given way to tacit complicity, a seemingly worldwide burger category conspiracy.

The fight now looks staged, a rigged wrestling match. The two corporations are one. Whether you chow down on a Whopper or toss back a Big Mac, you are patronizing McKing, a huge patty and bun duopoly. They both might as well sell McWhoppers.

[1] Banks, Alec, “The 10 Most Interesting Brand Wars of All-Time.” Highsnobiety, November 27, 2014.

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