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McDonald’s Puts Nostalgia, Gimmicks on the Menu

The fast-food giant has fallen behind Wendy’s and Burger King in one key area.



The fast-food giant has fallen behind Wendy's and Burger King in one key area.

Over the past few months, Wendy's (WEN) - Get Wendy's Company (The) Report added a strawberry version of its iconic Frosty to its menu and welcomed back the Pretzel Pub Burger and Pub Fries. It also brought back French Toast Sticks, and while none of these are radical innovations (a French Toast Stick appears to be a piece of French Toast cut up) they do keep things interesting for customers.

Restaurant Brands International's (QSR) - Get Restaurant Brands International Inc. Report Burger King has tested and tried more Whoppers in recent years than most people can keep track of. The chain has also shown a willingness to try new ideas, have some fail, then try again. The burger chain has revamped its chicken sandwich more than once as well, while also adding a plant-based version of a chicken sandwich.

And while Wendy's operates at a slower pace than Burger King when it comes to making menu changes, both chains keep trying new ideas. Nobody can predict which fast food items will be a huge hit  -- the Popeyes Chicken Sandwich is really just a big piece of chicken with mayonnaise and pickles -- but if you don't try, you can't find your next big thing.

McDonald's  (MCD) - Get McDonald's Corporation Report, at least in the United States, has mostly opted out of innovation in favor of gimmicks, plastic crap, and celebrity collaborations.


McDonald's Has Stopped Innovating

While a chicken nugget does not seem revolutionary now, when McDonald's launched Chicken McNuggets in 1983, they were a first from a major chain. The creator of the Big Mac also invented to Filet O' Fish (which is admittedly not that creative) and the McGriddle (which most decidedly is).

Over the past few years, however, the chain has opted for pretend innovation. It has, for example, put popular "menu hacks" on its actual menu. But they didn't remain there for long, so those who still want hacks made popular on social media have to go back to ordering the individual items and creating the hack themselves.

That would be like Starbucks (SBUX) - Get Starbucks Corporation Report handing you the ingredients to make Purple or Pink Drink (before the latter became an actual menu item) rather than making the drink for you.

McDonald's has also pioneered the idea of celebrity meals. These aren't anything new, they're just the orders BTS, Saweetie, Travis Scott, and J. Balvin order from the fast-food giant (or so it says). That's not having one of the celebrities create something new, it's literally just pushing people into a combo meal.

Bring on the Plastic McCrap   

People have very fond memories of Happy Meal toys because, well, we didn't have much in the way of video games in the 1980s. In reality, getting a little figure from a recent movie ("hey look, it's the baby from 'The Incredibles'" or something similar) produced a high that lasts as long as the flavor from cheap gum.

This has not stopped McDonald's from doubling down on nostalgic plastic nonsense that will mostly get thrown away. The chain has brought back its Halloween Pails, buckets that are too small for actual trick or treating, and added an adult Happy Meal designed by Cynthia Lu, the designer behind Cactus Plant Flea Market and personal stylist to rapper Pharrell.

Again, Lu did not create some sort of Cactus Mac or Pharrell McNug O' Fish. She used her signature art style to make tiny toy versions of Grimace, Hamburglar, Early Bird, and Cactus Buddy, apparently a new member of the McDonaldland family.

Burger King and Wendy's are endlessly adding hot sauce, cheese, bacon, and who knows what else to various items to create something new. McDonald's has Halloween buckets and toys that adults will cherish for around the time it takes for your ten-piece McNuggets to get cold. 

And, while you don't actually want these things (because you're an adult with very little use for a four-eyed take on Grimace) people seem happy to line up for them. McDonald's should be looking for the next Baconator or a way to make people willing to eat a plant-based fast food burger). Instead, it's copying Cracker Jack's business model (and we're all falling for it). 

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