Why did the tomatoes go on a vacation?

Tomatoes and Onions are in the news… again! Prices of essential commodities like vegetables make news when they rise and fall, and this is the season of extraordinarily high prices of tomatoes at least.

Three fast-food chains recently dropped tomatoes temporarily from their food items. But a look at how this update made it to the news holds a really interesting lesson. Take look!

Notice something unusual about the news on Burger King?

So, when I first read about McDonald’s dropping tomatoes from their burgers, I didn’t think much of it. After all, procurement of ingredients for the humongous operations of a chain like McDonald’s is a complex process involving so many steps. I recall reading about the extensive lengths the chain goes through for procuring fresh paneer for its Paneer Burger, an India-exclusive burger variant. As this article says, making paneer at home is easy, but mass producing it on a phenomenal scale, that too to the chain’s exacting standards, is tough.

Reuters was perhaps the first media outlet to report on McDonald’s dropping tomatoes from its India offerings, on July 7, 2023.

What was the source of Reuters’ news?

A combination of the in-store notices in 2 McDonald’s stores in Delhi + McDonald’s statement to the media + statements from the store managers.

Here is the in-store notice, printed on an A4 size sheet.

The news headline?
“McDonald’s drops tomatoes from India offerings, citing quality concerns as prices surge”

Observe that there is no mention of price in the notice and even the franchisee’s statement attributes it to “temporary seasonal issues” without talking about the price of tomatoes.

The story also adds that this was restricted to the 150 outlets as McDonald’s franchisees in India’s north and east, run by Connaught Plaza Restaurants, while the 357 restaurants run by another franchise, Westlife Foodworld, in the south and west, had no serious tomato-related issues.

And this: “a nearby Subway restaurant said there were no issues serving tomatoes“.

Then, 2 weeks later, on July 22, 2023, Reuters reported that Subway had dropped tomatoes from its offerings too!

The source of news?
In-store notice + store manager’s quote. Subway’s India owner, Everstone Group’s Culinary Brands, did not respond to Reuters’ queries.

Here is the in-store notice, printed on a laminated board even though the text is identical to the McDonald’s notice, word to word!!

The headline?
“Some Subway India outlets drop tomatoes citing poor quality amid price surge”

Since Subway India did not respond to Reuters’ questions, the primary source of information was the in-store notice that was copied from McDonald’s. A store employee was more honest and direct, if you read the news article.

And then, a month later, on August 17th, Reuters announced that Burger King too has dropped tomatoes from its offerings in India!

The source of news?
In-store notice + website FAQ! Burger King owner, Restaurant Brands Asia, did not respond to Reuters’ queries.

Here is the in-store notice, printed as a reasonably decently designed poster!

The headline?
“Burger King says tomatoes on ‘vacation’ as India battles food inflation”

As soon as I read the headline, my brain went, ‘Whaaaat? Tomatoes, on vacation? Is that Reuters saying that? Who exactly came up with that?’.

I found the headline to be dramatically different from the ones for McDonald’s and Subway. So I wondered who the source for this unique headline was.

The clue is on Reuters’ headline itself – the word vacation is in quotes! This means they are attributing that word to someone else. In this case, it was the poster!

Like McDonald’s and Subway, Burger King doesn’t refer to the rising prices of tomatoes, but instead of ‘drops tomatoes’, Reuters (and many other media houses) went with what Burger King suggested in their poster – ‘tomatoes on vacation’, while also adding inflation as the reason.

McDonald’s and Subway’s notice suggested the headline, ‘Temporary unavailability of tomatoes’. That turned into ‘drops tomatoes’ in news headlines. But since Burger King had a headline that was catchy, unusual, and had a sense of self-awareness, the poster’s headline made it to many news headlines too almost verbatim!

For someone like me who spent the first decade of my career in public relations (both the client side and the agency side), this brings back a timeless lesson on the art of persuasion.

I had addressed this in an earlier post, but I see that the Burger King poster, by way of seeding a headline in the minds of so many media editors, is a fantastic demonstration of the point I made. That point is simple: Instead of starting any communication by assuming that there IS an audience waiting to listen to you, you start with the extreme opposite – no one cares.

It’s most likely that someone in Burger King’s communication team in India started with that premise and made people take note of an otherwise routine communication.

People who work in the media are humans too. They are looking to tell engaging, readable versions of the news. In PR, we used to spend quality time trying to craft engaging headlines for the press releases and interesting quotes for the spokespersons. Why? Because we know for a fact that something interesting is likely to appear as is.

This is persuasion at its very basic. Persuasion in advertising is no different, but takes on a different manifestation. Ad agencies and brands want people to make associations:

  • Morning = not just any coffee, but Nescafe.
  • Butter = Amul
  • Mother’s love and enthusiasm for the child – Bournvita
  • Goodness = Cadbury’s Dairy Milk
  • Body positivity and self-esteem = Dove

And so on. To enable us to make such associations (which can increase consideration for those products), they infuse their advertising narratives and jingles with those words and sentiments. And the more we are exposed to such messaging, the more we remember the associations.

In the case of Burger King, they, along with McDonald’s and Subway, are announcing not-so-pleasant news! Even as the price of their products remains the same, they won’t include tomatoes now! This is bad news, generally. But this is not bad news in isolation. These chains are not the only ones feeling the pinch – a LOT of people are, in their homes/kitchens. Many local restaurants may drastically reduce the tomato content in their dishes without even bothering to inform their customers – these three are forced to make this announcement because that darned tomato is so very visible in their kitchens (open kitchen, in the case of Subway) and dishes 🙂

So how does the tone of the communication impact, if at all, between McDonald’s and Subway vs. Burger King?

McDonald’s and Subway presumed that they are making a simple, functional communication. They were sharing mere information. One could argue that when communicating bad news, mere sharing of information is adequate. After all, why attract attention to bad news?

But Burger King added a character to its communication. It wasn’t passing mere information. It had chutzpah and showcased that while they are constrained to take action on an issue a lot of people in the country are going through, they can do it with some additional panache by assuming that they are not passing mere information.

Tomatoes would be back at some point anyway. But while getting to know that it won’t be part of Burger King’s items for the time being, why not have a mild chuckle at the communication? With McDonald’s and Subway, all you could feel is consternation and annoyance. With Burger King, beyond feeling consternation and annoyance (can’t avoid those – you are a paying customer, after all), you may also, at some corner of your mind, think that they perhaps pulled it off well.

This is not a game changer, of course. It’s a very small thing – just a poster. But the headline’s existence, particularly in the face of incredibly plain, transactional communication from 2 of its rivals, is worth noting.

Of course, just one poster cannot make you consider Burger King over McDonald’s or Subway. The brand needs to consistently infuse such clever thinking in all their customer touchpoints to make you change your mind. But that doesn’t mean we cannot look at this one instance and not appreciate it.

The best side-effect for Burger King was that in the absence of the brand announcing it to the media (no press release, so management/leadership quotes to media), the media picked it up directly from the poster. And while they did, they retained the headline as is because they liked what they saw. So what was essentially meant only for people who are already predisposed to Burger King (only those inside the store could have seen that poster and they are inside for a reason!) became a very public communication, to a lot more people outside their stores. This is most probably an unintended side-effect, but this is incidentally how the entire PR industry operates (or should operate), with total intention!

What Burger King did was a very, very, very mild variation of Steve Jobs’ introduction to the iPod – not ‘World’s first portable digital music player’, but, ‘10,000 songs in your pocket’. But it is particularly interesting because they chose to communicate bad news with creativity! So, while we remember that all three chains dropped tomatoes (temporarily), you may remember that only one of them made you chuckle at the announcement too.