A remarkable feature of the restaurant business is the willingness of most members to play nice with one another. Archcompetitors will civilly regard each other at local or industry events, remembering they’re respectable organizations first, rivals second. Mutual appreciation between brands is far more evident than any ill will.
For the most part.
Every once in a while, something will turn polite competitors into snide combatants, their one-two jabs packing humor but with real vitriol underneath. It’s sniping as an art form, a stab at embarrassing a rival for the sake of laughs and the possible defection of customers.
Here’s a look at some of the recent and classic instances of a restaurant brand chopping on a competitor, starting with the elbow White Castle threw McDonald’s way just this week.
1. White Castle vs. McDonald’s
The slider chain ran an ad in the Chicago Tribune this week aimed at McDonald’s employees working in Big Mac’s home office in Oak Brook, Ill.
“Congratulations on the test of your new Crab Sandwich in four restaurants in San Jose, California,” read the copy, referring to the test McDonald’s announced two weeks ago of an $8.99 snow crab sandwich. “For employees at your Oak Brook, Illinois, headquarters—roughly 2,200 miles away from the test market—who are interested in having in having a tasty crab seafood sandwich now—we got your back.”
The ad proceeds to inform McDonald’s staffers that they can drop into a nearby White Castle to sample the rival chain’s new Seafood Crab Cake Slider for free. And if at least 50 employees acted on the offer, the Ohio-based chain pledged to donate $10,000 to a charity.
“In other words, this deliciousness is less than five miles from your front door,” White Castle said. “Be bold and join us.”
If the ploy works, White Castle would have considerable bragging rights about McDonald’s employees liking its LTO.
2. Wendy’s vs. other burger chains
Wendy’s has an acknowledged image problem. Although the chain has spent millions to advertise the distinction of using only fresh ground beef for its burgers, consumers still don’t believe it. Seven out of 10 maintain the chain is using frozen meat.
Instead of crowing the same message at a higher volume, Wendy’s decided in its initial Super Bowl ad to kick some dirt on its burger competitors, most of which rely on frozen, preformed patties. The 30-second spot purported to show the arctic meat locker of rival chains, collectively tagged as the Othr Guyz. A polar bear would have shuddered.
Viewers were invited to visit Othr-Guyz.com and directly buy the pack’s signature product, hockey puck-like Freezy Diskz—not to eat, but to use as Frisbees or coasters.
3. McDonald’s vs. Starbucks
The home of the Golden Arches similarly targeted a rival’s employees when the burger giant tried to boost coffee sales in 2008. McDonald’s bought billboard ads near Starbucks’ Bellevue, Wash., home office, proclaiming, “Four bucks for coffee is dumb.” A second ad invited the headquarters staff to visit a McDonald’s for a free espresso during breakfast hours.
McDonald’s also set up a website to bash bent-pinky coffee drinkers, unsnobbycoffee.com.
4. Burger King vs. McDonald’s
The home of the Whopper came at McDonald’s with fists flying in 2013, hatching a duplicate of the archrival’s iconic product, the Big Mac. The Big King was an obvious rip-off, right down to sporting a special sauce and a third piece of bread nestled between two burger patties.
But the taunting didn’t end there. A commercial aired in Europe showed a BK customer whose big hat and raincoat failed to cover up Ronald McDonald’s telltale red curls, white face and oversized shoes.
5. Taco Bell vs. McDonald’s
The Mexican chain tried to foster some buzz around its breakfast entry in 2015 by using a series of tongue-in-cheek commercials bashing the quick-service market’s a.m. leader. One spot showed real customers named Ronald McDonald relishing Taco Bell’s new waffle taco.
Next came a bunch of nerds shedding their loser trappings, from mullets to pants that screamed “uncool,” and redeeming themselves by adapting Taco Bell as their new breakfast choice.
6. Papa John’s vs. Pizza Hut
The rivalry between Papa John’s and Pizza Hut turned so nasty at the end of the 1990s that lawyers had to be summoned. Beforehand, the brands bickered via commercials, bashing one another’s allegedly subpar ingredients and accusing the other of lying about its proclaimed quality.
Finally, Pizza Hut turned to the courts to stop Papa John’s from trash-talking about having better sauce and dough because it used fresh ingredients. The Hut alleged that Papa’s ad slogan, “Better ingredients, better pizza,” was false and misleading advertising.
One court agreed. Then Papa John’s appealed the decision, arguing that taste was a subjective issue.
A court decided in Papa John’s favor on the appeal, and the chain went back to its “Better ingredients, better pizza” tagline.