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Raz Godelnik headshot

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


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.

Raz Godelnik headshotRaz Godelnik

Raz Godelnik is an Assistant Professor and the Co-Director of the MS in Strategic Design & Management program at Parsons School of Design in New York. Currently, his research projects focus on the impact of the sharing economy on traditional business, the sharing economy and cities’ resilience, the future of design thinking, and the integration of sustainability into Millennials’ lifestyles. Raz is the co-founder of two green startups – Hemper Jeans and Eco-Libris and holds an MBA from Tel Aviv University.

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