Spicy McNuggets and the long-term survival of McDonaldland

To compete in the heavy world of fast-food, each restaurant – if I may be so bold as to call them that – has a “thing.” Wendy’s is all about freshness. Carl’s Jr. targets a specific kind of masculinity. Popeye’s is passionately southern. Subway makes the sandwich in front of you, Chipotle is a Subway for burritos, and Moe’s is a Chipotle for people who think that music peaked with Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness. Everybody has their thing.

McDonald’s didn’t have a thing. They nailed the kid’s meal early with the Happy Meal, pioneered the fish sandwich, created not one but two specialty burgers – the Big Mac and the Quarter Pounder – and served everything with the world’s best fries. The whole reason that you had a thing was to stand out from McDonald’s, to compete with the undisputed fast-food champion of the globe.

Burger King, the fast-food version of Adlai Stevenson, tried to make its thing chicken sandwiches back in the 70s, long before chicken sandwiches became the trend they are today. A series of ads by Burger King were meant to convince customers their food was simply better than McDonald’s and were more or less unsuccessful (Wendy’s tried the same tactic in 1984 but their focus on quality – something Burger King never really emphasized themselves – made their campaign so successful that its slogan became a well-known catchphrase).

McDonald’s Spicy Chicken McNuggets

Earlier in September, McDonald’s introduced the Spicy Chicken McNugget. This incredible innovation came over a decade after Wendy’s did it. Today on Pyramid’s Lunch Rush, we ate them. Our verdict?

They’re fine.

Look, there’s not much to talk about here. The spicy McNuggets taste like normal McNuggets except they have a bit of a spicy breading to them. It’s a real spice, but the fact that they’re serving them with hot sauce is a sign that McDonald’s is trying to split the difference: they’re not so spicy that someone who doesn’t eat spicy food wouldn’t enjoy them with a little ranch, but they’re also not so spicy that if you really like spicy food you’re going to be impressed.

That’s how a lot of other places work, though. Wendy’s spicy nuggets aren’t melt-your-brain hot. Taco Bell’s spiciest regular menu items are probably too much for some people but there are plenty of people who probably add a couple drops of Tabasco/Cholula/Frank’s/Texas Pete/etc. to their Taco Bell.

Served with fries and a Coke, the spicy McNuggets do little more than leave a big question: why did it take a decade? These are perfectly adequate and, okay, they’re better than Wendy’s – because McDonald’s regular chicken nuggets are better than Wendy’s regular chicken nuggets, don’t @ us – but there’s nothing special here. Rolled out in the same month as the Travis Scott meal and it begs the question: what is McDonald’s thing?

McDonald’s remains the king of fast-food but its castle lays besieged by many forces. The company struggles to compete on the chicken front, with customers preferring Popeye’s and, unfortunately, Chick-fil-a. It can’t mount a good defense on burgers, either, especially mid-COVID, since chains like Shake Shack and Five Guys offer a product that handles delivery a lot better than McDonald’s burgers do. Taco Bell is cheaper, Chipotle is fresher, Wendy’s introduced an all-star breakfast line-up, and McDonald’s has the Travis Scott meal.

The Travis Scott meal has been a big hit for the chain, and the company has attributed that to the presence of Scott himself, a musical artist with six Grammy nominations and a large fan base both in the U.S. and internationally. Is McDonald’s pulling itself out of a longtime slump by pinning its hopes – its new thing – on collaborations with popular artists?

Probably not, says marketing expert Michael Miraflor.

At $6 nationwide – when purchased on the app – the Travis Scott Meal is hands-down the cheapest of McDonald’s combo meal options (although in some markets the Filet-O-Fish and/or Two Cheeseburger meal might be lower). For comparison, the 10-piece McNuggets combo we bought today clocked in at just over $9 with tax.

Miraflor wondered whether Scott’s team had any influence over the price itself, which is lower than the Bacon Quarter Pounder with Cheese. Given the chain’s recent struggles, it could be worth it to break even or even lose a little bit on the Travis Scott Meal if it brings in customers who buy higher margin items like a second order of fries – or if they make it big on sales of the McNugget body pillow.

Speaking of McNuggets.

Customer traffic at McDonald’s has declined for years, slimming margins at a chain where margins were already tight on most products. So here’s a conspiracy theory: the Travis Scott Meal and the spicy McNuggets were timed to release together in the hopes that customers buying the Travis Scott Meal would spring the extra to buy the spicy McNuggets, which have a higher margin.

That’s probably not a conspiracy theory at all. But it still leaves us wondering why it took so long to introduce the spicy McNuggets. It isn’t like someone at McDonald’s in 2010 said, “We can’t do this now, we need to wait for a decade of steadily declining traffic at our restaurants before we introduce a loss-leading burger themed for a popular hip-hop artists when we can release the spicy McNugget as an unrelated add-on purchase item to shore up revenues.” That… that would be a real conspiracy theory.

Long-term, though, the spicy McNuggets aren’t enough to keep McDonald’s afloat, and it’s hard to see how collabs with pop culture figures are, either. You could make the case that young people who don’t usually frequent McDonald’s might be coming through the drive thru to pick up a Travis Scott Meal, but is that enough to get them to come back after the deal is over? And once Burger King does their Doja Cat Chicken Fries and Wendy’s rolls out Wet Ass Potatoes, there’s really no guarantee that this marketing gimmick will hold enough water for McDonald’s to get away with it again. This isn’t a long-term solution and, sure, the world is collapsing around us and democracy in America could be on its dying gasp but we really want to know what McDonald’s is going to do to stay relevant because focusing on anything else right now is painful.