The numbers don’t lie: How bad maths torpedoed an American restaurant’s McDonald’s assault

They say the customer is always right, but what happens when your customers can’t do basic maths? 

They say the customer is always right, but what happens when your customers can’t do basic maths? 

US-based fast food chain A&W inadvertently answered this age-old question back in the 1980s after launching their ⅓ pound burger, designed to compete with McDonald’s beloved quarter-pounder.

The then-owner of A&W, A. Alfred Taubman, launched the burger with a large marketing campaign centered around the slogan “third is the word”, but consumers weren’t responding.

“We were aggressively marketing a one-third-pound hamburger for the same price…but despite our best efforts, including first-rate TV and radio promotional spots, they just weren’t selling,” Mr Taubman noted in his memoir, Threshold Resistance.

Confused as to why the burgers weren’t selling despite costing the same as their smaller, clown-promoted competitors’ sandwich, a baffled Mr Taubman turned to market researchers to make sense of the disappointing campaign.

The researchers eventually turned to focus groups, hoping to get answers straight from the horses’ burger-loving mouths, and what they found was a hilarious misunderstanding at the heart of the campaign.

Most of A&W’s customers incorrectly believed a third of a pound was less than a quarter, and they were being overcharged when compared to McDonald’s.

“Why should we pay the same amount for a third of a pound of meat as we do for a quarter-pound of meat?” focus-group members asked.

Despite the disappointing response and the underwhelming reason for it, Mr Taubman still saw the experience as a valuable lesson in tailoring marketing materials to their intended audience.

“Sometimes the messages we send to our customers through marketing and sales information are not as clear and compelling as we think they are,” he wrote.



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