In the fast-food business, imitation isn't just a form of flattery - it's a proven way to increase sales.
The Taco Bell value menu, for instance, gave rise to the Wendy's Super Value Menu, the McDonald's Dollar Menu and the Burger King Value Menu. The Angus beef burger from Back Yard Burgers begat similar burgers at McDonald's, Burger King and Hardee's.
In the latest appropriation of a popular product, McDonald's has just introduced a Southern Style Chicken Sandwich - one that looked suspiciously like the signature sandwich of the Chick-fil-A chain.
"We knew this was coming," said Don Perry, a Chick-fil-A spokesman.
McDonald's is rolling out the sandwich in all 14,000 of its restaurants in the United States, in what the company says is one of its biggest product introductions this year. Television ads in five languages started running May 6, and on May 15 free Southern Style Chicken Sandwiches (and a breakfast version) were offered with the purchase of a drink.
Ads for the product are in print, on billboards, online and on the radio. A Web site, whatcamefirst.com, pits a chicken versus an egg in a dance-off, sort of like the "Subservient Chicken" site that Burger King put up in 2004 to promote its chicken sandwiches. McDonald's says that its new site, put up in late April, is meant to appeal to young adults and so far has attracted 150,000 visitors.
But McDonald's disavows any similarity to the Chick-fil-A sandwich.
"Absolutely not," said Marta Fearon, U.S. marketing director for McDonald's, when asked if the company was going after the smaller chain's customers. "It is all about McDonald's chicken."
The sandwich is a breaded chicken breast garnished with two pickles - exactly what Chick-fil-A offers. It was thought up by a group of McDonald's franchisees in Atlanta, where Chick-fil-A is based. And it comes in breakfast biscuit or sandwich form, just as it does at Chick-fil-A.
According to Chick-fil-A, a promotion in the Atlanta area for McDonald's has promoted the fact that the Southern Style Chicken Sandwiches are available on days ending in "y." Chick-fil-A restaurants are closed on Sundays.
Chick-fil-A, a private company with about 1,380 restaurants in 37 states and the District of Columbia, says that it is the second-largest quick-serve chicken chain (KFC Corp. is largest), but that it does not have the marketing resources to retaliate directly.
"We really encouraged the stores, 'Don't even waste time working on pushing back on McDonald's; you've got more important battles,'" Perry said.
The franchisees have been watching McDonald's test the product over the past two years in 2,000 stores. But Chick-fil-A was focused on its own new menu effort, a line of healthy foods (more salads, among other things) that was announced this week.
"We're very proactive with the media," said Steve A. Robinson, chief marketing officer for Chick-fil-A, but "we have very limited budgets" for advertising. The focus of the national marketing is on college-sports sponsorships like the Chick-fil-A Bowl, and these efforts do not get going until the fall, he said.
"Why would we not pointedly come back and try to communicate something about Chick-fil-A vs. McDonald's?" Robinson said. "The answer is we simply do not have the media resources to get into that contest. We're not going there."
At least one Chick-fil-A franchisee could not resist a swipe. Arthur Greeno of Tulsa, Okla., saw a billboard near one of his franchises - and near a McDonald's - and found out it was available on May 15. For that day, he posted the message: "Trade in Any 1/2 Eaten Copied Sandwich and Get the Original Meal Free at Chick-fil-A."
Greeno said about 50 or 60 sandwiches were exchanged.
"They said, 'Don't spend any of your time focusing on it,' and I wouldn't have, but to be honest this opportunity kind of fell in my lap," he said.
At McDonald's, the May 15 promotion was a bit less successful than expected: The company had estimated it would give away 8 million sandwiches, but the actual figures came to 2 million biscuits and a little over 5 million sandwiches, said Fearon, the marketing director.
"In the northern part of the country, they may not be used to eating chicken at breakfast or chicken without a lot of toppings on it," she said. "So we had a very large effort to promote this product with a sampling."
McDonald's is not the only chain starting to embrace the Southern-style sandwich. Not long ago, many quick-serve restaurants rushed to add wrap sandwiches to their menus in rapid succession; now the same thing seems to be happening with Southern-style chicken.
Arby's announced in March that it would offer its Southern Style Chicken at two for $4 as a limited-time menu item; soon after, Hardee's said it would roll out its Chicken Fillet Biscuit nationwide.
"The fastest-growing food over the last 10 years in the restaurant industry has been fried chicken sandwiches," Harry Balzer, who researches the food industry for the NPD Group, said.
Analysts gave the new McDonald's sandwich positive reviews in both taste and sales potential.
"We like the flavor and portion size" of the new product "and think that it may be the closest offering we have seen to Chick-fil-A's signature chicken sandwich, which we consider to be a leader," Jeffrey Omohundro, a senior analyst for Wachovia Capital Markets, wrote in a recent report.