Quarter Pound of Stupid: What hamburgers can teach us about B2B marketing

A Picture of a Lovely Looking Quarter Pounder!
Alex Croucher

When it comes to marketing fails steeped in notoriety, things aren’t much more notorious than the almost inconceivable story of American fast-food chain A&W. It was a classic case of prioritising big dreams over logic.

A&W, which still exists today, was keen to capitalise on the success of McDonald’s Quarter Pounder burger in the 1980s. A&W’s marketing department thought the easiest way to win was to offer a bigger, beefier burger for the same price.

And so, A&W’s new Third-Pound Burger was born.

After defeating McDonald’s in a blind taste test, this would be an easy win for A&W. A sure-fire way to earn the crown for biggest, best, beefiest burger. Or so they thought.

Unfortunately for A&W, consumers didn’t buy it — literally — and their new burger was a flop from the start.

Understanding the market

The problem came down to one of simple mathematics: customers thought that 1/4 was larger than 1/3.

In the focus groups that followed, A&W discovered that people thought the McDonald’s Quarter-Pounder was bigger and therefore better value than their Third-Pound Burger.

“Why should we pay the same amount for a third of a pound of meat as we do for a quarter-pound of meat at McDonald’s? You’re overcharging us.”

It was the “4” in “¼” that led them astray.

In some ways this tremendous error of judgement ended well for A&W because, despite the calamity, their Third-Pounder story skyrocketed the A&W brand, helping them rise to hamburger stardom across the fast-food industry.

A&W’s marketing director Liz Bazner explained: “This story has been circulating for years, and every few months it seems to gain momentum and reappear on social media. We’ve received tons of questions about it…”

As recently as April this year, an Instagram post about the ill-fated Third-Pounder racked up more than fifty-one thousand likes.

In a true carpe diem moment, the company is once again aiming to capitalise on the situation with its latest campaign, The 3/9 lb. Burger.

A&W said on its YouTube channel:

In the 1980s, A&W tried to compete with the McDonald’s Quarter Pounder by offering a bigger, juicier ⅓ lb. burger at the same price. But confused consumers wrongly assumed that ¼ was bigger than ⅓ (You know, because 4 is bigger than 3) and the whole experiment went down in history as a huge marketing fail.

Well, Rooty has been crunching the numbers, and he’s finally come up with a solution that’s destined to shake the field of mathematics to its core.

For a limited time only, forget everything you know about fractions and wrap your beautiful mind and watering mouth around the whopping A&W 3/9 lb. Burger.

It’s bigger, genius.

What about B2B marketing?

Marketing campaigns can fail for hundreds of different reasons. They can be too complex or too condescending. Sometimes they’re so far from the mark that they put companies out of business.

Being too complex, or being overtly technical, is one issue that has plagued B2B marketing since its inception. So much so that the industry even created its own parody video.

An effective marketing campaign should offer a simple, effective value proposition that’s both comprehensible and meets the needs of buyers.

Recognising the rational and emotional factors behind a B2B purchase — and tailoring the value proposition to match — is a major component for success.

Global consulting firm Bain describes these factors as the ‘B2B elements of value’. Split into five areas, they typically include:

  1. Table Stakes: Acceptable price, meeting compliance, meeting specification.
  2. Functional Value: Cost reduction, improvement in top line, innovation.
  3. Ease-of-Doing-Business Value: Time saved, effort reduced, problems solved.
  4. Value to the Individual: Reputation, growth and development, fun and perks.
  5. Inspirational Value: Vision, hope, social responsibility.

The more that a marketing campaign can address these specific elements, the bigger the payoff.

Fundamentally, this is about understanding the needs and wants of the buying group and using appropriate messaging to address them.

The challenge for so many B2B organisations is finding the resources to conduct adequate market research that can unearth these extremely valuable data points, or elements of value as Bain calls them.

All about the value prop

Crafting a great value prop is certainly more than I can cover in a single article, but for further reading have a look at how to shape a great B2B value proposition.

The important takeaways here are:

  1. Do your research. Don’t assume you know the needs (or intelligence) of your audience.
  2. Use findings from your research to inform your marketing and messaging strategy.
  3. Build everything around that.

If you’d like to talk about your B2B marketing needs, or you’re looking for an experienced B2B marketing consultant, call or WhatsApp me on +44 (0)118 324 7770.

US readers can try A&W’s new Three-ninths Burger at any of their 600 restaurant locations.