The McWhopper and other Brand Frenemies

A week after McDonald’s turned down Burger King’s big (and temporary) unity proposal, fast food lovers are likely left wondering why the McWhopper can’t be a delicious reality. And we are left wondering how rival collaborations can actually be a good thing.

Of course, while Burger King reached out to McDonald’s with a friendly proposal to join for a good cause, the move can still be seen as competitive. As the Harvard Business Review puts it, “collaboration is competition in a different form.”

Working with a rival gives each side the opportunity to shine, as well as get a closer look at each other’s inner workings. That’s why the general suggestion in these scenarios is to proceed with caution. But don’t let that hold you back if the opportunity is right.

Increasing social ROI

Collaborating with a competitor, while a delicate operation, can have many significant benefits. For example, the biggest advantage of partnering up is that it tends to gain attention and public favor.

You don’t need to look much further than YouTube or any newspaper’s human interest section to find stories of should-be enemy animals getting along like the best of friends, or a fallen marathoner being helped up by a rival runner. These scenes are heartwarming. And in this warmth is the same emotional appeal that attracts consumers to competitors who work together.

According to Inc., when rivals partner up, or even if they engage in playful public repartee on social media or in ad wars, “it gets consumer attention and…humanizes each brand, improving conversion rates.” Essentially, when brands converse like real people do, they become less corporate and lofty, and it’s much easier to become invested in the products they sell.

Brands attached to good causes

Of course, when competitors team together, it has to be for something big and it has to be for something good (the BK and McD’s union was proposed in the name of world peace). Otherwise, rivals are rivals for a reason. So, not only does the partnership generate buzz, but it can also generate awareness of important issues. This, in turn, boosts social ROI even higher and may catch the attention of those otherwise unfamiliar with the brands’ values.

In 2012, UPS and USPS found a way to partner on an initiative that not only raised awareness of sustainability, but helped each of their own businesses work more efficiently.

To get Millennials to take action against climate change, one operation brought 29 supporters together, including rivals such as Coke and Pepsi.

In a bid to help end hunger, former rivals ConAgra Foods and Procter and Gamble got together and collaborated on a campaign called “Child Hunger Ends Here.”

During a time when more people are choosing to purchase goods and services from companies whose values align with their own, these types of grand collaborative team-ups are becoming more winsome.

And if the cause is not about a global issue, companies are finding advantageous ways to team up simply to make life easier for consumers, like Microsoft and Google working together to ultimately create faster, better Internet speeds. Or HBO and Showtime partnering to provide otherwise impossible coverage for the Mayweather and Pacquiao fight this past May.

Learning from McDonald’s

With all of this in mind, it’s clear why many believe McDonald’s missed an opportunity by turning down Burger King’s proposal.

And while McDonald’s certainly must have had significant reasons for why they thought the collaboration wouldn’t be in their best interest, the response itself seemed to have turned off many of McDonald’s own fans, potentially damaging a chunk of their social ROI.

Taking advantage of the buzz, Denny’s now wants in and has offered to swoop in and take McDonald’s place in the proposal. Time will tell how Burger King responds, and time will also tell if Burger King had even prepared themselves for an outside counter offer to begin with. Despite the good things that can come out of successful adversarial collaboration, there are also risks, such as wanting to maintain distance from certain brands.

If your business ever finds itself in the position to collaborate, Living Cities president and CEO Ben Hecht offers these 5 thoughts on the matter. In the end, you may find that it’s best to work with those you typically work against.

Published on September 1, 2015