If imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, then McDonald's Big Mac ought to feel awfully flattered by Burger King's new Big King burger—out this week and priced at $3.69.
The King's features include two all-beef patties, special sauce, lettuce, cheese, pickles, onions and a sesame seed bun. In fact, a bun trifecta: one on top, one in the middle, and one below—just as with the Mac.
McDonald's, however, can hardly beef, says burger industry expert Scott Hume: The Mac, he tells ABC News, is itself an homage to the Big Boy burger, introduced in 1937 by the original Bob of Bob's Big Boy.
Asked how often in the fast food business one competitor imitates another, Hume says: "All the time."
Sonic, for example, just switched over to natural-cut fries, he says. Wendy's had had them before.
A few years ago, says Hume, "Everybody, at about the same time, had little bite-sized pieces of chicken. They just called them different things--popcorn chicken, McBites, chicken-bites, and so on." It's the same way, he says, that everybody has a cheeseburger on their menu. "Is that copycatting?" asks Hume. "I don't think so."
He says the reason chains don't sue each other is, that while it's possible to copyright the name of a food novelty, it's not possible to protect the idea behind it. You can trademark "Chicken McNuggets," but not the idea of serving little bites of chicken. "One chef can't sue another chef, just because he comes out with a similar dish."
On his website, BurgerBusiness.com, Hume says consumers care about price, quality and taste—not whether one item imitates another. "Will they buy the $3.69 Big King or the similarly priced Big Mac? That's the question," he says.
The more interesting competition going on right now between Burger King and McDonald's, in his opinion, is in the simulated-rib arena: Burger King's new BBQ Rib sandwich is noteworthy not because it and McDonald's McRib share similarities (boneless rib patty, onions, pickles, and a sweet and spicy BBQ sauce), but because the Rib is priced at $1, or one-third the McRib's $2.99.
"Now THAT's something consumers care about," he writes (the capitalization his).
Talk of "menu plagiarism" Hume finds meaningless. If Burger King is guilty of anything, he says, "I'd say Burger King is guilty of smart marketing, not cloning."