The new Burger War: 5 Guys vs In-N-Out

s-FIVE-GUYS-BURGER-largeWhen I was a kid, after my hockey practices, my mom and I used to go to Burger King.  It became a tradition.   What did i like the best?   It was nice and quiet, compared to the crowded noisy McDonald’s right across the street.  No lines, no one taking up great seat locations and almost zen.  Today, there’s a new Burger War brewing:  5 Guys versus In-N-Out Burger.  Who will win?

Who has the Better Burger?

I know there’s lots of debate out there.  Let’s dispel the myth here: they are almost the same burger.  They take a high quality ground chuck, and squish it firmly onto the grill which locks in the flavor and creates a juicy burger. 250px-InnoutOremIt’s a much higher quality meat than McDonald’s and much juicier in the end due to the cooking technique.  The only difference is 5 Guys burger feels like the burger actually breaks apart more which could make it feel less fast-food and In-N-Out feels very neatly stacked.  VERDICT:  Tie

Fries versus Shakes

If the burger is a relative tie, then what else you got.  5 Guys wins on fries and In-N-Out wins on Shakes.  Unknown-3I’m a big fries fan, and 5 Guys does have pretty darn good addicting fries.   They give you enough that you likely won’t finish them.  The In-N-Out fries (except for Animal Fries) are a little bit nondescript and boring.  In terms of shakes, the In-N-Out shakes are legendary, whereas 5 Guys is completely missing out by not even having a shake.   Verdict:  Tie, pick your poison and likely only have it once in a while.  

Who has better Atmosphere?

I have to say, neither is very cool at all.  In-N-Out had the plastic feel of a McDonald’s, with booths that are too small to fit those that can eat a double-double.   imagesThe hats on the employees are cute, giving it a 50’s diner feel.  And 5 Guys atmosphere feels like a Costco.  Dusty floors, crappy little tables and chairs.  Plus, do we really need 50 signs per restaurant telling us how great you are.  What you’re doing is opening up the door to local establishments finding a niche against both of these with a cooler pub-like atmosphere.  Verdict:  one bad tie.  

So the overall product is a tie.  

Where does In-N-Out Burger win?

Clearly as I’ve heard from the fans, In-N-Out does a great job engaging with their consumers.  The secret menu and the secret sauce, the traditions of the double-double and the “animal fries” all help create a “club” filled with brand fans who will take on anyone that knocks their brand.  images-1There’s a slight difference in who each attracts.  In-N-Out’s menu items are generally less expensive — the chain is most popular with young men ages 18 to 24 with an income of less than $70,000 a year, according to NPD. By contrast, Five Guys patrons are generally 25 to 50 years old, with an income of more than $100,000.  In-N-Out seems to have a more engaged consumer base that it can leverage as 5 Guys is now into the Southern California market ready to do battle right in the backyard of In-N-Out.

Where does 5 Guys win?

5 Guys has been much more aggressive.  They have pursued winning on reviews and lists that can help drive awareness for the brand.  In 2010, they won the Zagat best burger.   They’ve aggressively gone after celebrities such as Shaq and Obama.  Unknown-1And most of all, they are winning on location, location and even more location.  At this point, In-N-Out is stuck as a West Coast brand, in California, Arizona and Nevada with only 280 locations.  And 5 Guys is everywhere, with 1000+ locations, fairly national and even in Canada.  They are clearly following the McDonald’s real estate strategy by trying to be everywhere.  The other area where 5 Guys wins is pricing.  I’m a marketer, so the more price you can command the better.  For relatively the same burger, 5 Guys charges twice what In-N-Out charges.  In this current stagnant economy, people are proving they’d rather pay for an amazing quality burger than a cheap steak.  It feels like In-N-Out is leaving money on the table with the prices that are just slightly above the McDonald’s price points.  

So who will win?  

At this point the clear winner will be 5 Guys.  Unknown-2Just like McDonald’s versus Burger King in the original burger war, it’s not as much about the burger itself but about the aggressive pursuit of real estate.  Unless In-N-Out wakes up, takes all that brand love they’ve generated among their fans and they go on an 5-year big expansion, they’ll be relegated to a regional brand we only visit on our road trips to California. 

5 Guys Is Quickly Becoming the Upscale Answer to McDonald’s


A vote and a shout out for Local still.  At this premium burger price range, and with boring atmospheres in both Five Guys and In-N-Out restaurants, they are keeping the door open for local burger places to stay alive. If you’re ever in my home town of Toronto, Craft Burger (now Big Smoke) on King Street offers a very unique burger and feel.  Hand made, aged cheddar giving it a slightly different feel and the fries are great.   Allen’s on the Danforth has an amazing quality beef and the best outdoor patio around.  Burger’s Priest in Toronto has almost completely copied In-N-Out with lots of mysterious schtick, including the Secret Menu.  It’s fun.  I’m sure you’ve got your own local place.  Here’s to local.  


To read more about how the love for a brand creates more power and profits:

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About Graham Robertson: The reason why I started Beloved Brands Inc. is to help brands realize their full potential value by generating more love for the brand.   I only do two things:  1) Make Brands Better or 2) Make Brand Leaders Better.  I have a reputation as someone who can find growth where others can’t, whether that’s on a turnaround, re-positioning, new launch or a sustaining high growth.  And I love to make Brand Leaders better by sharing my knowledge.  Im a marketer at heart, who loves everything about brands.  My background includes 20 years of CPG marketing at companies such as Johnson and Johnson, Pfizer Consumer, General Mills and Coke.  My promise to you is that I will get your brand and your team in a better position for future growth. Add me on LinkedIn at so we can stay connected.

Burger King Gives Up #2 to Wendy’s…and Who Really Cares?

“Nobody goes there anymore.  It’s too crowded.”

Yogi Berra

Actually for Burger King, it’s the opposite–there are no crowds.   We have a Burger King and a McDonald’s in my neighbourhood that are right beside each other.  When my kids were little, we used to take them to Burger King, just because it was nice and quiet.  That’s not the kind of benefit that will make you a lot of money:  “Come to Burger King and Avoid the Crazy Crowds”.  

Looking at Burger King’s history, we can see it’s been owned by so many companies from Grand Metropolitan to Pillsbury to Diagio and most recently a couple of Private Equity groups who probably think they can turn it around.  They’ve tried every ad agency from BBDO, JWT, Y&R, McCann Erickson and Crispin Porter.  They’ve tried bigger sizes, Whoppers, chicken fries and even Flame Broiled.  I’ve NEVER seen a live flame in a Burger King but I have seen plenty of microwaves.  The current ad strategy is now “Have It Your Way” which is back to the same tag line it used in 1974…when it was just a mediocre knock-off to McDonald’s.  I guess it’s fitting because it’s still just a mediocre knock-off.

Let’s face it:  People “Love” McDonald’s and only “Like” Burger King.  Would you cross the street in the rain to get a Burger King?  Not likely.  Would you defend Burger King in a heated debate about who has the better fries?  No way–Mcdonald’s fries are to die for.  There’s no emotion with Burger King.  It’s a functional choice, you consider it and enjoy it.  But you don’t crave it.  It’s not personal.   And you’re not outspoken about the brand.  It’s ok.  And yet today marks the day Burger King is no longer the #2 hamburger brand as it has now fallen behind Wendy’s in sales.   And I bet that no one really cares.

Calling Wendy’s #2 is really a bit misleading, because really it’s actually now the #4 fast food brand.  Subway is now the clear #2 fast food brand and Starbucks is #3. Wendy’s and Burger King are like two cars in the slow lane with growth rates dwarfed by the three leaders ahead of them.  In terms of burger excitement, the world is filled with high end local choices and Five Guys has replicated the local choice on a mass scale and is now the Fastest Growing burger joint in North America.

Wendy’s and Burger King appear equally confused.  Wendy’s modest growth has come mainly from innovative and differentiated product, such as the Baconator or the Spicy Chicken or their salad options.  All good.  But since the death of Dave Thomas in 2002, it has no clue how to communicate what the Wendy’s brand is all about.    For the past 10 years, Wendy’s advertising has been confusing, meandering and void of any emotion at all.  They really are just a bunch of product ads, with cool ways of slicing tomatoes and lettuce and lots of people sitting in plastic chairs eating burgers.   Here’s Wendy’s history of campaigns over the past decade!  Can you remember one of them?

  • 2002:  Final Dave Thomas campaign
  • 2003:  Product Related Ads
  • 2004:  “Mr Wendy” character
  • 2005:  Square Burgers vs Round
  • 2006:  It’s always Great, Even Late  (Open Late)
  • 2007:  That’s Right campaign
  • 2008:  It’s waaaay better than fast food. It’s Wendy’s
  • 2009:  You Know When It’s Real
  • 2010:  Hot and Juicy
  • 2011:  “Where’s the Beef?”

Wendy’s is stuck in a world of boredom.  As a result:  consumers like the brand, but do not love it.   Wendy’s needs to find a big advertising idea that emotionally connects with consumers and then stand behind that idea for the next 5-10 years.  The challenge I give most brand leaders who are stuck in the world of boredom: “If you don’t love the work you do, then how can you expect your consumer to love your brand”.   

About Graham Robertson:  I’m a marketer at heart, who loves everything about brands. I love great TV ads, I love going into grocery stores on holidays and I love seeing marketers do things I wish I came up with. I’m always eager to talk with marketers about what they want to do.   My background includes CPG marketing at companies such as Johnson and Johnson, Pfizer Consumer, General Mills and Coke.  I do executive training of executives and brand managers, helping on strategy, brand planning, advertising and profitability.  I’m an adjunct professor at the Cornell-Queen’s Exec MBA.  If you have interest for your team, email me and we can customize a program to your needs.  For Powerpoint versions of Brand Learning presentations, visit Slide Share Learning Presentations