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4 Lessons from Burger King’s Decision to Stop Serving Low-Calorie Fries

Raz Godelnik
| Monday August 18th, 2014 | 6 Comments

Satisfries Last week Burger King had some news for us: The fast food chain announced it will stop serving Satisfries, its lower-calorie french fries, at most restaurants.

The reason?  Apparently, most customers didn’t like this low-calorie option. “More than 100 million customers had tried the fries, but that sales were too weak to continue offering the item throughout its United States stores,” the company told the New York Times.

But this wasn’t the only fry news Burger King had last week – one day before it waved goodbye to Satisfries, the company announced on the return of “the great-tasting Chicken Fries”!

The reason? Again, it was all about the customers. “Sparked by an overwhelming number of enthusiastic tweets, Change.org petitions, dedicated Tumblr and Facebook pages, and phone calls from devoted fans, these voices are the reason this cult favorite menu item is back.,” the company reported.

So, in most of Burger King restaurants, customers will keep enjoying the same number of options after these changes, only instead of one with 270 calories, 11 grams of fat and 300 milligrams of sodium (aka Satisfries), they will have one with 290 calories, 17 grams of fat and 780 milligrams of sodium (aka Chicken Fries).

However, there’s more to this story than just calorie, fat and sodium accounting.  Here are four lessons we can learn from last week’s news:

1. Customers want better value, not necessarily healthier fast food

Business 101: Customers want better value for their money. Now, value is a subjective thing, and indeed many people value healthy fast food. But you probably won’t find those people at McDonald’s or Burger King. Most customers in big fast food chains seem to be paying more attention to parameters like taste, price or even the coolness of the item.

So, given that Satisfries were pricier ($1.89 for a small order, compared with a $1.59 for regular fries), didn’t taste better and the sad reality that there’s nothing cool about low-calorie options, the fact that customers didn’t see it as a ‘valuable’ alternative shouldn’t come as a surprise.

2. No behavioral experiment is complete without a nudge

When Burger King launched Satisfries last September it labeled their sale a test. Yet, it’s not clear what effort Burger King made to increase the chances of this test to succeed.

First, as Huffington Post reported, it’s unclear whether customers were aware of what made the fries lower in calories: “The company did not have signs in restaurants explaining the difference between Satisfries and regular fries.”

Now, given what we know so far about the success of calorie labels in fast food, it wouldn’t make much of a difference. As Dan Ariely, professor of psychology and behavioral economics at Duke University, explains: First, the number of calories itself is not very informative as most of us don’t really know how many calories we’re supposed to eat. Second: “We are getting people who already made a decision about which restaurant to enter. So if you go into McDonald’s or you go into a fast-food Chinese place, you’re not going to look at the board and say, oh my goodness, I didn’t know these places were so calorie full, let me go somewhere else,” Ariely explains.

While information itself might not be effective in changing our behavior at fast food restaurants, other interventions might work. “Offering people a chance to exercise self control can be effective, but we need to stop people, slow them down and offer them to take a better path at the moment when they are placing their order,” Ariely says.

Any sort of intervention, what Ariely equates to looking more like a nudge (“Any aspect of the choice architecture that alters people’s behavior in a predictable way without forbidding any options or significantly changing their economic incentives,” as Richard Thaler and Cass Sunstein define it), seems to be better than doing nothing.

Yet, doing nothing is exactly what Burger King did, which is why I believe that the test they ran was flawed or have been done done much better if they really wanted it to succeed.

3. To move the needle you need leadership not nudges

Even if Burger King would have come up with a powerful nudge to change their customer behavior, my guestimation is that it wouldn’t result in a significant change (i.e. Satisfries becoming more popular than regular fries). A real change could probably be achieved if Burger King decided it’s time to take bold steps and move from adding more choices to eliminating the ones that are less healthy (like it did with its kids’ meals).

Now, I believe this is more a question of leadership rather than of the number of choices. You need to be strategic like CVS eliminating cigarette sales and explaining that “ending the sale of cigarettes and tobacco products at CVS/pharmacy is simply the right thing to do for the good of our customers and our company.”

Could Burger King lead its customers rather than following them? I doubt it, but otherwise the best the company would get (with nudges) would be incremental changes.

4. Design-thinking is not enough

This story could easily be framed as an example of a company taking a design-thinking approach: It is  about experimenting, embedding a human-centered approach, and trying to iterate its way to better solutions.

When you look at it this way, the company did well by eliminating a choice the customers rejected after testing it and bringing back a choice they really wanted.

However, taking this approach without having a sustainability framework embedded into it means that the company might make the right decision in terms of human-centered design but could take the wrong path.

In other words, Burger King might satisfy its current customers’ needs, but if it doesn’t have a clear vision for the the wellness of its customers over the long-term — and what that means in terms of the food it offers — it shouldn’t be surprised if its competitive position doesn’t improve that much, even with “the great-tasting Chicken Fries” back on the menu.

Image credit: LoveBeauty NGlam, Flickr Creative Commons

Raz Godelnik is an Assistant Professor of Strategic Design and Management at Parsons The New School of Design. You can follow Raz on Twitter.


▼▼▼      6 Comments     ▼▼▼

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  • Diarmuid Murray

    Lesson # 5 – people who care about their health are very unlikely to frequent Burger King or any other similar fast food chain (not including ones like Chipotle or Panera that actually do have proper healthy food options). So why would BK et al bother even trying to offer them something that’s not going to result in them getting a heart attack by age 50?

    • JohnH

      Diarmuid, in 2006, I lost 105 lbs. I ate at Burger King nearly every day while doing so (I found the 470 calorie veggie burger (plus cheese) to be a perfect diet meal since it offered me convenience, a known calorie quantity, and good staying power in terms of slow digestion, leaving me feeling full).

      Without fail, I do an hour of vigorous cardio every day in two half our segments, plus weight training — and I do a two hour hike as much as five times a week, and never less than twice per week. My pulse is currently around 60 bpm, and I have excellent heart health.

      I’ll be 50 in a couple years.

  • Roger Stillman

    Let’s face it. The fast food places are just not frequented by those of us who are health conscious. There is a reason it’s cheap but that’s a whole other issue. People don’t go to Burger King and the like to get low calorie foods. If I was going to BK I would only order my favorite meal but I don’t go to BK, but hey!!! we’re talking about it and BK loves the free publicity. Better value for places like BK is the same thing as saying “SUPER SIZE ME”

    • JohnH

      “People don’t go to Burger King … to get low calorie foods.”

      Roger, read my comment above. That’s precisely why I go there. A 470 calorie meal is low calorie.

      • James Holden

        John H, you may go to Burger King for a veggie burger with cheese and you very well may have lost 105 lbs. but the majority of people who frequent Burger King are not lining up for Veggie Burgers. Which goes back to what is stated: People who frequent Burger king are there for the burgers and fries and not there for low calorie foods. I think your weight loss came from your working out and excersising.

  • accolade

    The problem is they offered it as a choice and didn’t mandate the change like they done in recent years with their new fatty fries. Or like when they changed to the nasty Lays style tasting fries back in 1995.

    I don’t frequently dine at Burger King like a lot Americans, not out of health concerns but mainly is that we like vareity and would try a different restaurant before coming back to BK. Despite that I still prefer a healthier French fry so removing it due to low sales which were likely due to people being unaware of the new fries since its only available on request, and its under a silly name “Stratifies”could be the reason.

    I’m going to frequent the BK in my area until the low calorie fries are gone.