Saturday, 24 March 2012

The decline of Western fast food

Closed for business - Holborn BK
Some of the world's most recognisable brands are junk, but the value of their brash, bright franchises are going into decline.

The last time I went to Burger King was about six months ago, outside Gloucester Road tube station. I was a little drunk and had a double whopper with bacon and cheese, and onion rings and a coke. I felt somewhat guilty and a little exhilarated and probably a bit self-righteous because I was talking about diets.

That same Burger King ran a marketing gimmick a few years ago where you could order a £95 whopper that was made from rare beef and topped with truffles - an attempt to garner publicity with it's non-core target market of young, working class men. It was dismissed in the media as a poorly conceived marketing stunt masquerading as corporate social responsibility (proceeds were donated to charity).

In the early 2000s, BK, in a bid to differentiate itself from its closest competitor McDonalds after being bought out by a tri-mera of private equity firms including Goldman Sachs Capital Partners, deliberately pumped its burgers full of trans fats, made them bigger and declared war on the calorie-conscious and weak-wristed. It was a foolhardy strategy that failed, and the 2007-08 financial crisis took a further toll on BK as its target market was hit hardest and cut back on whoppers.

A roaring trade - Holborn McDonalds
I wasn't surprised, then, to see that the filthy little BK kiosk across the road from Holborn tube station had closed, an ignoble end to an outlet in a tarnished chain. Opposite Holborn tube in the other direction, a gleaming green McDonalds continues to do a thriving business, that outlet an example of how the world's most ubiquitous burger chain has successfully rebranded and altered its business model to become more palatable to a consumer base well-versed in trans fats and the obesity epidemic.


Not a very nice lady
If you grew up in the 80s, there's a good chance that you have something of a love/hate relationship with fast food brands. Brand advertising took off in the 80s, and the world's biggest consumer companies binged on sticking their logos on anything that might appeal to their target markets. Read any of the classic brand texts from the 80s and you find that all roads lead back to fast food - these companies understood the power of brand earlier than every other industry, and pretty much spoon fed academic authors the nuggets of wisdom they published. Like cigarette companies, they saw a further opportunity to make lifelong customers out of a generation of young consumers. There's a whole industry devoted to the psychology of marketing to children and there's written proof of the lasting power of branding, especially when it's aimed at children, as publisher of Shoreditch Twat fanzine Neil Boorman's Bonfire of the Brands attests.

I, Smokey, I mean Dopey, swear that nicotine is not addictive
The tobacco industry's PR house of cards came down in the 90s, when health groups and consumer watchdogs, amongst others, started to garner support for their battles against the industry. The 'seven dwarves' incident, when the seven CEOs of the seven biggest American tobacco companies committed perjury by swearing that their products weren't addictive, was self-admission, by default, that they were the corporate bogeymen of an unethical industry.

Warren Buffett's changing attitude towards the investability of tobacco companies is a stark mirror on the social acceptability of tobacco:

'I like the cigarette business. It costs a penny to make. Sell it for a dollar. It's addictive. And there's fantastic brand loyalty.' (1987)

'Investments in tobacco are fraught with questions that relate to societal attitudes and...I would not like to have a significant percentage of my net worth invested in tobacco businesses.' (1994)

But fast food escaped. When I was a kid, a big family day out in West Germany was a trip to the American PX, an hour's drive north to Bremen. It was the equivalent of a trip to the shopping mall, where some of the exotica we could expect to find were hip hop records, Nike Air Jordans and weird toys, topped off with lunch at Burger King. For many people, McDonalds is the ultimate symbol of American consumer culture; but McDonalds was everywhere, even in suburban West Germany, where it compromised on it's golden arches and then-corporate colours of yellow on red so that the conservative town council would allow an outlet to open in picturesque central Celle (there were brown arches on white). For me, Burger King, available only on special occasions at the American barracks, was THE American burger.

A Food Fighter
Back then, middle class parents still took their kids to fast food restaurants without needing to be nagged too much, and mine were no different. In fact, I think my dad even quite liked BK. Merchandising was key to the close affinity that fast food brands struck up with children, and indeed toys are a great marker of just how acceptable marketing fast food to kids was. One of the weird and wonderful toy lines that I used to be fascinated by at the American PX was 'Food Fighters'. They were grotesque pieces of fast food dressed in military gear and brandishing weapons, part of either the Kitchen Commandoes (the goodies) or the Refrigerator Rejects (the baddies). They had names like Burgerdier General, Private Pizza and Chip the Ripper. I thought they were amazing. My parents, happy to let us stuff our faces with junk food once in awhile, thought that the army theme was a step too far and refused to buy them for us.


For much of the 90s, the narrative about the evils of junk food was confined to marginal publications like the Socialist Worker, handed out on street corners to curious teenagers (like me). I'm not sure exactly when the zeitgeist turned against fast food once and for all, but the milestones that stand out to me are Fast Food Nation and Super Size Me. Who could forget how shocking it was when Morgan Spurlock was told by his doctor that he risked long term liver damage after a month long McDonalds-only diet? Certainly not the McDonalds corporate board, who announced that they would no longer continue to offer the super size option. There the seeds of its business transformation were sown. Today, McDonalds is lauded for its commitment to sustainability and doing its bit, strange as it may seem, to combat obesity.

Burger King, safe behind the golden arches taking a battering on behalf of an entire industry, carried on doing what they do, seemingly oblivious to the changing tide of public opinion. The little Jacksonville, Florida burger chain has changed hands multiple times, each time being sold on because it couldn't provide the return to its new owners that they expected. The closure of the Holborn outlet, strategically positioned by the busstop so drunken office workers could grab a whopper for the bus ride home, is just a tiny chapter in its slow decline.