Guest Column

Is a hamburger really just a hamburger?

November 24, 2012
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When I think of a hamburger, I am left with a few questions. Why is it so popular? Is it the taste? Is it the years of good marketing? Is it the convenience and price of being fast food? All of the above?

The changes to the hamburger have sustained its popularity, even with the many other fast-food items introduced over the years, including hot dogs, pizzas, burritos and tacos. The market for fast foods didn’t push the hamburger out; it simply expanded it to satisfy the many different tastes of a hungry public.

The hamburger continues to be king. Pricing is a factor, since it has always been a great value. While many restaurants serve a larger version of the hamburger with a side costing upward of $10, most fast-food restaurants keep the cost down to $5 or $6. Currently, McDonald’s and Wendy’s offer a double-meat cheeseburger for about a buck. Burger King tried to force its franchises to match the competition, but faced resistance and, eventually, lawsuits. The complaint was the loss of a few cents per burger. McDonald’s addressed the issue with its franchises by cutting slices of cheese from two to one.

Adaptations to the hamburger can be found around the globe. Rice burgers are available in East Asian countries, chicken burgers in India, a combination of lamb and lentil in Pakistan, or sliced pork in China. McDonald’s and Burger King can be found just about everywhere.

Wendy’s is now No. 2 in the fast-food industry. It also has gourmet hamburgers that are stuffed with various ingredients, multiple toppings and house-made sauces. The company realized through its surveys that people liked the brand but thought it had not kept up with the times. Wendy’s decided to remake its 42-year-old hamburger. The company agonized over every detail: A pickle chemist was consulted, customers were quizzed on their lettuce knowledge, and executives went on a cross-country burger-eating tour. Their efforts resulted in a new burger: the Hot ‘N Juicy. Company officials already felt their food was good; they just wanted to make it better. “Isn’t that what long-term brands do?” said Denny Lynch, a Wendy’s spokesman. “They reinvent themselves.”

Burger King redesigned its broiler system to accommodate thicker burgers. Companies that sold other products got on the hamburger bandwagon. Garden Fresh Gourmet Inc., which started out in the salsa business, has plans to release a new stuffed-burger line in the fourth quarter. A state-of-the art machine will be used to inject everything from bacon and cheddar to sautéed mushrooms and Swiss into the burgers. “It’s really break-through stuff,” said Dave Zilko, GFG vice chair.

There are many new hamburger businesses in Grand Rapids — Smashburger and Bagger Dave’s among them — and each offer a different dining experience. Fast-food restaurants have tried to “upscale” their burgers in the hope of attracting consumers. They are pushing premium burgers with a real gusto. “A premium burger is any burger that a restaurant can convince you is somehow better than average,” said Scott Hume, editor of BurgerBusiness.com.

The onslaught of premium burgers encouraged Five Guys restaurant chain to offer pricey, top-quality burgers. The company has even managed to attract President Obama as a customer.

Each semester I ask my students, “Is a hamburger a hamburger?” Their response is normally “No.” I then state it is merely ground beef and the marketer has tweaked customers’ perception to think there is a big difference. Then I ask, “If a marketer can differentiate ground beef, do you think they can also do so with jewelry, clothing, cars, beverages, etc.”? I get them thinking, and that is the point. The starting step is to know your target market and its expectations. What is most important to them? The quality of the meat? The cut? The size of the hamburger? The taste? The grade of beef? Toppings? Price? The environment where it is sold?

The next step is finding a benefit that other marketers do not promote. This really plays on the customer’s perceptions. No matter which burger is your favorite, rest assured it is good business to take a low-tech product, position it as a cut above the rest and make a major killing.  I’ll let you decide if a hamburger is a hamburger. Meanwhile, please pass the ketchup.

Maria Landon is an affiliate professor in the marketing department at Grand Valley State University. She can be reached at landonm@gvsu.edu.

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