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Burger King’s secret weapon against McDonald’s is the Whopper

In this photo illustration, an Impossible Whopper sits on a table at a Burger King restaurant on April 1, 2019, in Richmond Heights, Missouri. (Photo Illustration by Michael Thomas/Getty Images)

(CNN) — When Burger King launched a new marketing campaign late last year with a little jingle to support the Whopper, Tom Curtis was initially skeptical.

“You just can’t say ‘Whopper’ four times,” Curtis, Burger King’s president in the US and Canada, told CNN, recounting a conversation with the brand’s creative and marketing teams. “There’s got to be something more to it than that.”

But the jingle, which does indeed say “Whopper” several times, is something of a hit. The song has over 3.5 million plays on Spotify. On TikTok, one creator remixed the tune with a Daft Punk song, earning encouraging comments from the brand (the creator later reviewed the Whopper, concluding “it’s mid,” or unimpressive.) Others riffed on the remix — someone even made a hamster dance to it — giving it new life.

The ad campaign proved to be an early win for Burger King in its big bet to complete against McDonald’s — which is also promoting its signature burgers — and turn around its business by going all in on the Whopper.

In September, Burger King announced a $400 million plan to improve the chain, which was lagging behind competitors after making operational missteps during the pandemic, like adding complicated new food items at a time when most chains were slimming menus down. The effort includes putting the Whopper front and center, and using the burger to drive traffic to restaurants.

The plan is still in early stages: Burger King has invested $40 million as of the end of last year. But the response to the ad campaign is encouraging. Sales of the Whopper are up “significantly,” Curtis said, noting interest in the song seems to have picked up in recent months. And the Whopper was already contributing to sales in the fourth quarter. At US Burger King locations open at least 13 months, sales jumped 5% in the quarter, thanks in part to the burger.

That means the monarch character who was featured in the chain’s commercials for years, has been dethroned, at least for now. “He’s on sabbatical,” said Curtis. “I don’t know what his place might be in the future.”

The fast food war heats up

For Burger King, the Whopper is more than just a burger. It’s a key weapon in the fast food wars.

“McDonald’s [is] pretty good at the burger business,” acknowledged J. Patrick Doyle, executive chairman of Burger King’s parent company Restaurant Brands International, during a February conversation with analysts. “Their units look terrific today. I think their loyalty program has been working very well for them. There is a lot that has gone right over there,” he said.

But “they do not sell the Whopper. That’s the point of leverage,” Doyle noted. “That is ultimately how we compete effectively with them.” He added that “the Whopper may actually be a better brand than Burger King.”

Curtis said the Whopper is special because it’s “flame-grilled,” adding “it’s like a backyard barbecued burger” prepared at a large scale.

But even if the Whopper isn’t all that different from other fast food burgers, it’s the one Burger King has got. The burger is “pretty much their best-selling, what they’re known for, product line,” said Andrew Charles, a restaurant analyst at Cowen, who is bullish on the turnaround

Doyle, who became executive chairman in November of last year, is well respected by industry watchers after executing a triumphant turnaround at Domino’s when he was CEO of the pizza brand.

“Never underestimate Patrick Doyle,” said Sara Senatore, a research analyst at Bank of America Securities, which provides financial services to RBI. “He’s kind of a living legend.”

Still, McDonald’s is a powerhouse with deep pockets and far more locations than Burger King, and it’s also trying to drive sales to its core products.

McDonald’s recently announced a number of tweaks to its burgers, including the Big Mac. The brand promised softer buns and meltier cheese, among other changes, for what they say will be a tastier burger. Soon after, the chain said that it would offer Big Mac sauce in a dip cup for a limited time, again drawing attention to the signature burger.

For Burger King, “the challenge is you’re competing against McDonald’s, and McDonald’s is really good,” said Senatore. And McDonald’s “is not exactly resting on its laurels,” she said. “They’re not going to make it easy for Burger King.”

Beyond Burgers

It’s one thing to get people in the door with catchy songs. But in order for Burger King to parlay those visits into a meaningful sales improvement, people have to want to come back.

“Repeat and the frequency are metrics that we’re watching carefully. And wanting to see those grow over the course of time,” Curtis said.

In addition to improving the Whopper, Burger King is also investing in remodeling stores, though Curtis noted that those projects “haven’t really started coming online at all yet.”

In order to do all this, Burger King needs the support of franchise operators, who will have to shoulder much of the costs of remodeling themselves. Some franchisees aren’t in a position to do so -— in recent months, a handful of Burger King franchise operators have declared bankruptcy. Curtis isn’t too concerned about these, describing them as a “very small part of our base.”

Franchisee buy-in is key to a franchisor’s success, especially when the operators need to invest into locations.

“The most important thing for any system is having the franchisees on the same page, and willing to invest,” said Bank of America’s Senatore“And that’s particularly important now for Burger King, because much of… the investment in the system that it’s anticipating will be coming from franchisees.”

Charles from Cowen expects more menu improvements to come. “Longer term, I think you’re gonna see things such as upgraded french fries [and] upgraded breakfast offerings,” Charles said.

Curtis is cautiously optimistic for the moment. “We’re extremely enthusiastic and excited about the turn in the business,” he said. “But there’s no sense of complacency … we’re just gonna have to keep working at this.”