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Can McDonald's Pumpkin Spice Latte, Burger King's Satisfries and Other Copy Cats Compete?


Taco Bell squares off against Chipotle with gourmet burrito bowls, while McDonald's takes on Subway and Starbucks and their signature items. Here's how the battles are going down.

In the highly fragmented fast food restaurant industry, margins are limited and competition is fierce: The 50 largest companies hold just 20% of the market, according to research by SBDCNet. Despite the fact that the industry has felt the recessionary impact in recent years, IBISWorld predicts that fast food revenues will increase by about 2% this year. The biggest gains will go to those who successfully address predominant macroeconomic opportunities by offering healthier items and more exotic, more specialized menus.

Judging by the flurry of copycat product releases of late, replicating what's working for your competitors appears to be the shortest path to achieving these objectives. Here are just a few examples of how fast food leaders are proving that imitation may indeed be the highest form of flattery -- and the surest road to potential profitability.

The Champion: Subway subs and wraps. The name Doctor's Associates may not be as publicly recognizable as McDonald's, (NYSE:MCD), but as the parent company of Subway restaurants, which now has nearly 40,000 units, it represents strong competition for the Golden Arches, particularly because of its popularity among Millennials. Not only does the demographic (made up of consumers ages 18-32) represent an opportunity to capture a potential audience of 80 million customers, but Barkley research indicates that they are highly influential, eat at fast food restaurants more frequently than their older counterparts, and spend about $175 per month or more dining out. The challenge McDonald's has in attracting this audience? Millennials value fitness and healthy lifestyles, preferring the lighter fare offered at restaurants like Subway. According to Ad Age, Millennial traffic at "hamburger joints" has decreased 16% since 2007.

The Challenger: McDonald's McWrap. To attract Millennials, McDonald's launched the Premium McWrap (offered in three varieties, and priced at $3.99), featuring a tortilla wrap stuffed with chicken, spring mix greens, cucumbers, tomatoes, cheese, and a choice of dressing, in the spring of 2013. Though the company has yet to release official sales stats around the items, Ad Age cited an internal McDonald's memo, noting that the addition of the McWrap (pictured) drew 22% of incremental Millennial customers who would've otherwise chosen Subway.

The Champion: Starbucks Pumpkin Spice Latte. Fall brings with it certain traditions: Football season, cooler evenings... and the return of the Starbucks Pumpkin Spice Latte, which celebrates its 10-year anniversary in 2013. When Starbucks (NASDAQ:SBUX) debuted the "PSL," The Street reported that comparable-store sales grew by 11% over the same period in the year prior. In a Starbucks-issued press release, Cliff Burrows, group president, Americas, Europe, Middle East, and Africa (EMEA), called the PSL "[Starbucks's] most popular seasonal beverage of all time." It is priced at $4 for a 12 ounce "tall" drink, and it is estimated to account for at least $80 million in revenue in the fall season alone.

The Challenger: McDonald's Pumpkin Spice Latte. In 2008, McDonald's enhanced its specialty bottled beverages, smoothies, premium drip coffee, and coffee drinks line-up by introducing McCafes at nearly 14,000 locations. At that time, the Wall Street Journal reported that the addition would add $1 billion in sales; the coffee line at McDonald's reportedly accounted for more than double that in 2011. Recently, McDonald's announced the addition of its limited-time Pumpkin Spice Latte (pictured). Offered at nearly half the price of Starbucks's PSL ($2.29 for a 12 ounce cup), initial reviews indicate it likely won't steal too much of Starbucks's thunder. "If you have a bit of a sweet tooth, a yen for pumpkin spice, plus a dislike of the actual taste of coffee, it might be what you're looking for," said one Brand Eating reviewer.

The Champion: McDonald's Fries. Though it's still the number-one French fry provider in the world (the McDonald's website says the company serves "approximately 9 million pounds of fries a day globally"), the brand's "Our Food, Your Questions" campaign (which invited customer questions via social media to enhance transparency and credibility) may have unintentionally created competitive opportunities. In the case of its own World Famous French Fries, for example, the McDonald's video series explained how it sources and prepares its product, using 17 different ingredients, including genetically modified oils like canola, corn, and soybean, and other chemicals thought to be potentially hazardous to humans.

The Challenger: Burger King Satisfries. On September 24, Burger King (NYSE:BKW) released its slimmed-down Satisfries, said to have 40% less fat and 30% fewer calories than the fries at McDonald's, thanks to a batter that absorbs less oil. Though Alex Macedo, president of Burger King in North America, said, "We know our guests are hungry for options that are better for them, but don't want to compromise on taste" in a company-issued press release, the company's track record for producing a slimmed-down fast food favorite hasn't historically been promising. In general, burger-and-fries brands are not known for their successes with reduced calorie foods. In 1991, McDonald's offered the McLean Deluxe as a less fatty an alternative to the Big Mac; it was discontinued within five years.

The Champion: Chipotle Mexican Grill Burritos/Bowls. With more than $3 billion in annual sales and about 1,500 locations, it's sometimes hard to believe that Chipotle (NYSE:CMG) has been part of the QSR landscape for fewer than 20 years. Especially loved by the highly-coveted Millennial demographic, Chipotle has redefined traditional perceptions of fast food by offering a simple menu focused on delivering only "food with integrity" through its selection of burritos, burrito bowls, tacos, chips, and salads, made using natural, quality, sustainable ingredients -- even including some that are locally sourced. Chipotle's formula managed to boost revenue and beat analyst earnings projections for Q2 2013.

The Challenger: Taco Bell Cantina Burrito/Burrito Bowl. In a distinct departure from its "fourth meal" branding, Taco Bell (NYSE:YUM) rolled out a more upscale approach in 2012, partnering with celebrity chef Lorena Garcia to create new "gourmet" menu items like the Cantina Burrito Bowl and the Cantina Burrito, made from carefully crafted recipes including black beans, cilantro rice, marinated chicken, and cilantro dressing. Offered at around $5 each, the items cost about $1.50 less than similar offerings at Chipotle. That said, Chipotle CFO Jack Hartung made no secret of his opinion of Taco Bell's competitive strategy. While on CNBC's Mad Money, Hartung said, "The experience we provide is very different from Taco Bell's. We don't think our customers are on their way to eat lunch or dinner thinking, 'Gee, should I have Taco Bell or should I have Chipotle?'"

Twitter: @WellnessOnLess
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