Burger King, which has taunted McDonald's for months with a successful Big Mac clone called Big King, is shifting the focus from burger wars to spud wars as it unveils ads for its new, crunchier fries, featuring the 45-year-old toy character Mr. Potato Head.
The commercials by New York ad agency Ammirati Puris Lintas, which will be presented at a New York news conference today, start airing next week, Burger King insiders said Tuesday. Mr. Potato Head will start a 45-city tour Thursday.
On Jan. 2--promoted as "Free Friday"--the chain will give away small orders of the fries across the country. And Mr. Potato Head toys will be given out with Kids Meals.
Although McDonald's has been criticized for the taste of its sandwiches in recent years, its fries are consistently ranked high. The chain sells 4 million pounds of them in the United States every day. Burger King is challenging that spud dominance.
"Nationally, McDonald's has been recognized as having a better fry, so we addressed that concern," said Joe Della Monica, who owns 15 Burger King outlets in New York.
The new Burger King fries feature a starch-based coating that franchisees say keeps them from turning cold and soggy quickly. "Within the time it takes people to get home from the drive-through, the fries will still be hot," said Jerry Cognetta, owner of a Burger King restaurant in Long Island, N.Y., that has been testing the new fries for three months.
McDonald's says it's not worried.
"Our fry is the gold standard in terms of taste, crispness and the quality of the potato product," said Bridget Coffing, a McDonald's spokeswoman said.
Mark Hamstra, associate editor at Nation's Restaurant News, a trade publication, said Burger King's move could backfire. "When you introduce something new and improved, you're admitting that your old product wasn't as good," he said.
Franchisees of Miami-based Burger King, which is a unit of Britain's Grand Metropolitan conglomerate, will need a sharp boost in sales to make up for the higher costs of the new fries, which amount to an extra $1,000 a month for a typical outlet, Della Monica said. The fries reportedly cost an extra 11 cents a pound to produce.
Burger King's share of overall burger-chain sales rose to 19.2% last year from 18.2% the year before. McDonald's market share fell to 41.9% from 42.3%.
The average American gobbled 30 pounds of fries last year, more than triple the amount in 1965 and up 5 pounds since 1990, the U.S. Agriculture Department said.