Thursday, April 21, 2005

The Breakfast Pizza Omwich

I decided to move to America soon after I discovered American poetry. I loved its restless quest for the new. I loved innovators like Walt Whitman, William Carlos Williams, and Robert Lowell, who trampled on convention and wrote in novel ways about things that had never been written about before. I longed to live in the land which had fostered such dazzling originality.

Sad to say, soon after I moved here, I lost all interest in poetry. But I developed a new interest: fast food. In the fast food industry, I saw the same relentless creativity that I had admired in American literature. Barely a day passed, it seemed, without news of some new creation: Pizza Hut’s Twisted Crust Pizza; Burger King’s Fiesta Whopper Sandwich; McDonalds’ McFlurry Sundae. And then, in 1999, Dunkin’ Donuts unveiled the Breakfast Pizza Omwich. This magnificent sandwich was to obsess me for months.

At that time in the industry, portmanteau words—such as “omwich” and “croissanwich”—were in vogue. But the Breakfast Pizza Omwich went one step further. It was a hybrid portmanteau. It was a sandwich and an omelet and a pizza and you could eat it for breakfast. It was so daring as to be virtually inedible. How on earth did they come up this thing? I brooded about this day and night. Probably this obsession was a symptom of some unsatisfied psychological need. But I had not been through talk therapy back then and had no way of knowing this. All I knew was that I had to know—I had to know—how they came up with this baroque flight of fancy they called a sandwich. Finally I could stand it no more. I telephoned the Dunkin’ Donuts headquarters, which were in Randolph, Massachusetts, within driving distance of Somerville, where I lived at the time.

I told them I was a British journalist and they put a PR woman on the phone.
“British readers are fascinated by product innovation in the American fast-food industry,” I informed her confidently, “and I would love to be a fly on the wall at one of your product brainstorming sessions.”
I waited for her to invite me to company HQ, where I would sit in a conference room stuffing myself with free donuts while snack-food masterminds bounced around ideas like the “Cajun Cornbread Gumboburger” or perhaps the “Breakfast Crumpet Frittatwich.”
Instead, there was a chilly silence.
“Impossible,” she said finally. “Our concepting techniques are highly proprietary. We absolutely cannot reveal them to a journalist.” She was worried, it turned out, that industry competitors would discover their special methods and use them to invent an even better breakfast sandwich. I badgered her for a while, but she stood firm. Then I insisted that she have her superior give me a call.

Several days later, he did so. I grilled him for information, but he wouldn’t give me any. He refused to answer when I asked if they had ever thought of fusing a doughnut with a hamburger.
“I’ll give you a quote and that’s it,” he said.
“That’s better than nothing,” I said sullenly.
“The Breakfast Pizza Omwich,” he announced grandly, “is revolutionizing the breakfast sandwich landscape.” He hung up before I could ask him what the breakfast sandwich landscape looked like.

After speaking to the breakfast-sandwich revolutionary, I burned with even more curiosity than before. What were these proprietary concepting techniques that were so coveted by their competitors? I was determined to find out. I read industry press releases, and learned that over at Pizza Hut they were revolutionizing landscapes too: “Innovation Transforms Pizza Landscape,” crowed the press release for their “Revolutionary Twisted Crust Pizza.” I read What Were They Thinking: Marketing Lessons you can Learn from Products that Flopped by one Robert McMath, a product-innovation expert who maintained a museum in upstate New York of over 73,000 failed products, from Clairol’s Yogurt Shampoo to Gerber’s Singles, a baby food for adults. (Sadly, the museum allows only corporate visitors.)

Finally I chanced on the Web site of a Kansas-based company called New Product Insights, Inc. They listed Dunkin’ Donuts among their clients. As luck would have it, New Product Insights, Inc. explained their special concepting technique right on their Web site. Aha! Finally, the truth! The special technique was something called “Mega-Brand Modeling”—a way of extrapolating new-product concepts using computer modeling based on similar current product attributes. Mega-Brand Modeling, in other words, was a way of turning out minute variations on the same thing. Why hadn’t I noticed this before? The Omwich, the Crossanwich, the Pizza Omwich—they were all basically the same sandwich. The fast-food industry managed to create a constant slew of new products without actually introducing any novelty.

McMath , the owner of the failed-products museum, had noticed this widespread dearth of originality. His new-product research firm, Marketing Intelligence Service,gave a special Innovation Rating to products it considered “new and different.” In 2000, of the 13,373 new items lauched, only 6.6 percent of them were considered genuinely new. Part of the problem was that while it was easy to come up with a genius idea like the Chicken McNugget in the 80s, now people were running out of ideas.

But in any case, fast-food moguls aren’t that interested in originality. New ideas cost money and in a competitve market, they can’t afford to go wrong. Besides, if they introduce something too different from their previous offering, they risk brand dilution. Avoiding actual novelty, they aim instead for the appearance of novelty.

Why bother even maintain this appearance? Launching new products attracts customers to stores. And new products produce a “halo effect” in the category, regardless of whether they sell. Whether or not people bought the Breakfast Pizza Omwich, after its launch, they bought a lot more breakfast sandwiches. In the years that followed, Dunkin’ Donuts would roll out the English Muffin Spanish Omwich and the Biscuit Pizza Omwich and the Maple Cheddar Breakfast Sandwich. Yet no matter how many times they revolutionized it, somehow the breakfast sandwich landscape always looked the same.

7 Comments:

Anonymous Bodhi Cole said...

That is soo fascinating!
Was this really all for your obsession for breakfast sandwiches?

12:53 AM  
Blogger Helena said...

I guess my breakfast-sandwich fixation really had something else behind it, particularly since I never actually ate a Breakfast Pizza Omwich. I tried to make Jordan eat one, but even he balked at this, as it really was very scary (you know how the omelet part comes in a perfect circle). I longed to know how anyone could come up with anything so bizarre, and I think I subconsciously hoped that discovering how they did this would teach me something profound about America, or at least the fast-food industry.

9:33 AM  
Blogger Tommy Barrett said...

There are so many nuggets--- or mcnuggets if you will-- that one could riff on this post... but one particular stands out for me... the Pizza Landscape... I wish someone painted Pizza Landscapes... such a painting would go perfectly with my dogs-playing-poker painting...

2:32 PM  
Anonymous Lessley said...

Today I saw "New Pastrami Dog" which was pieces of pastrami folded up on top of a hot dog with a piece of cheese between them. It was from Wienerschnitzel. I just thought I'd mention it.

7:29 PM  
Anonymous Sean F. said...

I laughed. I learned a new word!

12:27 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

i have a three year only daughter, and i was searching under agency child in modeling tennessee and i was wondering if anyone knew anything about **baby-modeling **. i think it would be fun

7:20 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

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9:43 AM  

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