A few days ago, Consumerist had a blog post showing an interesting map alleging to show the concentration of fast-food burger joints across the U.S.

The Consumerist post is based off an “Infographic of the Day” post from the magazine Fast Company.  The map above appears to show a far less dominant market position for McDonald’s than many had assumed. In fact, the blogger for Consumerist notes:

I had always assumed that McDonalds’ hamburger hegemony of the United States, if not the world, was complete. I was wrong. Clearly, I need to leave the Northeast more.

Indeed, the map seems to convey that McDonald’s has extreme concentration in the Northeast, but not many other places of dominance other than a scattering of black dots across the Northwest and upper Midwest.

There’s just one problem: by making the claim that McDonald’s is not as dominant as they thought, and by failing to explain the nature of the map seen above, Consumerist (as well as Fast Company) is essentially misreading and misinterpreting the data  by failing to note the map above is labeled McDonald’s vs. Allied Competitors.

So what does “Allied Competitors” mean? It means the total number of stores for McDonald’s top 7 competitors are being added together and compared directly with McDonald’s. So if there is a black dot in the region you are looking at, i.e. the Northeast, than McDonald’s in that region has more locations than its next 7 rivals COMBINED.  In any region that is NOT black, the 7 other competitors have more stores than McDonald’s, but only AFTER you combine all their stores  into one cumulative number. In these circumstances, a black McDonald’s dot is simply ineligible to appear on the map for that location and the color of the competitor with the most locations in that region is highlighted on the map.

So let me emphasize that again: the most predominant competitor is highlighted EVEN IF THAT COMPETITOR HAS FEWER STORES IN THE REGION THAN MCDONALD’S.

What is a more interesting question is WHY did Consumerist and Fast Company both highlight this map?  The original blog that posted this visualization, WeatherSealed, provided the map you see above as somewhat of an after-thought, imagining it as a Star Wars-esque “rebel alliance” of McDonald’s competitors who are able to  “beat” McDonald’s only by collectively banding together.  In fact, WeatherSealed led off their original blog post with a map that is a much more accurate representation of just how much McDonald’s dominates vs. other fast food joints on a per-location basis:

Here we see some sheer dominance of Texas and Oklahoma by Sonic, a smattering of Burger King & Dairy Queen clusters in the Upper Midwest/Plain States, some Jack-in-the-Box love for So-Cal and Arizona and some Wendy’s strength in the Appalachian belt.  But the blasting of black across the rest of the United States outside of these clusters makes clear the control McDonald’s wields over the U.S. market based on the number-of-locations metric.

So why did Consumerist and Fast Company highlight the other map? Because it’s prettier? Has more psychedelic colors? Conveys the more interesting (although completely inaccurate) point that McDonald’s might not be as dominant as people thought? Either way, Consumerist and Fast Company appear to have done a disservice to their readers by not better explaining the context of the map they were highlighting and/or noting the more relevant map of the two.

9 Responses

  1. Tobias

    The actions of Fast Company and Consumerist simply emphasise the constant bad press that McDonalds seem to recieve. Its amazing that despite the relentless criticism McDonalds are still growing, perhaps one could put it down to a successful marketing strategy http://bit.ly/9nOjgi

  2. Cliff Kuang

    It would have been nice if, instead of lumping the Fast Company post that I wrote in with that of Consumerist, you had actually read what I wrote:

    [[[Outside of a powerbase in the Northeast, they cover the country in a loose but consistent density. The other chains are playing a different game, trying to become so common in certain regions that they seem unavoidable. (The one thing missing in the graph is other types of fastfood chains--Subway being the most glaring omission.)

    And that, you could argue, is an indicator of relative brand strength: McDonald's doesn't have to have four stores in a single block, because people will come to the one that they do have. Everyone else has to shout a lot louder to compensate.]]]

    Which is essentially the opposite position than the one you attribute to our post.

    Moreover, we should the other map simply because it’s more accurate. The black of the other map happens to be THE BACKGROUND COLOR. It doesn’t show that you can find a McDonald’s every single place in the Northern Hemisphere, from the woods of central Idaho to the middle of the Gulf of Mexico. I didn’t post that version precisely because it’s misleading–it highlights the colorful chains, rather than the McDonald’s locations.

  3. Lewis

    Whats also funny is that McD spends so much money and effort into their potential franchise sites, that you are bound to see 2 or 3 of the competitors coat tail along and put a building where McD’s just put one of theirs.

    Why do market research yourself when McD can do it for you!?

  4. Eick

    Cliff – thanks for responding. All fair points, and I will agree that your written analysis of the map that you cited above is by no means inaccurate and provides a level of depth and thought that Consumerist didn’t even seem to consider.

    I disagree, however, over the implication that the black background makes the other map misleading. If the black appearing within the borders of the U.S. is the “background” color, then how can one even tell which parts of it are representations of McDonald’s density vs. just empty space that is filled in? I believe to suggest that is an inaccurate portrayal of what the map shows.

    I interpreted that map differently (and I believe, correctly) – any regions on that map which are colored black, even if they are remote, unpopulated regions, are areas where the CLOSEST fast food location to that point is a McDonald’s – which would actually seem to jive perfectly with your analysis that they “cover the country in a loose but consistent density.” This is why I felt that if you had highlighted the black map it would have meshed much better with the written analysis you provided.

  5. Tom Foolry

    Yeah, for the longest time I thought exactly the same thing about McDonalds being in control of everything! It wasn’t until I read a foodie blog, recently, that I realized that that is only in some areas. I don’t eat there much anyways, but still!


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