Why McDonald's Should Resurrect Its Biggest Failure

The Arch Deluxe was the biggest failure in McDonald's history. But we have a plan for the doomed sandwich.

Maybe we're just used to it as a consumer-driven society, but we're witness to the rise and fall of fast food products constantly. Items that we thought would always be there for us sometimes go away, like the Mexican Pizza from Taco Bell, which people are still sore about. But sometimes a fast food promotion crashes in such titanic fashion that there's no going back. Take the Arch Deluxe from McDonald's, which is famous for tanking at a mind-boggling scale shortly after being introduced in the mid-1990s. But I truly believe that even failures like that don't have to live in infamy—maybe the Arch Deluxe can be revived.

Let's rewind for a minute and examine the Arch Deluxe a little more closely. NPR just released an interview with economist John List, who talks about how and why the Arch Deluxe tanked badly enough that we're still talking about it today. It's an interesting tale.

The Arch Deluxe came about at a time when McDonald's sales had hit a plateau. The company was beleaguered by competition eating into its market share, so the Golden Arches decided on a new approach: innovation, the whole "evolve or die" angle. Enter an entirely new sandwich.

McDonald's ran a bunch of focus groups on this new savior sandwich, called the Arch Deluxe. It was a quarter-pound beef patty dressed with American cheese, a mustard-mayo sauce, ketchup, onions, a circular piece of bacon, lettuce, and tomato, all on a split-top sesame seed bun. That doesn't sound so bad, does it? In fact, it sounds downright delicious.

And focus groups thought so too. So the marketing blitz began, costing McDonald's hundreds of millions of dollars in advertisements. They touted it as "the burger with the grown up taste," squarely aimed at adults. But after they launched the Arch Deluxe, sales took a disappointing dump and never reached the heights McDonald's had hoped for, leaving the fast food mega-giant in the mud. It had no choice but to bail on the burger.

What's interesting is that when I tasted the Arch Deluxe back then, I do remember liking it. In fact, I liked it a lot. It wasn't your run-of-the-mill Quarter Pounder with boring ketchup, onions, mustard, cheese, and pickles. This was something special. It was marketed to adults, of which age group I was getting awfully close to, so the marketing did work on a young Dennis.

List suggests McDonald's error in judgment was based on a flawed source: the focus groups. He tells NPR that the subset of people who volunteered for the groups weren't exactly the type of people McDonald's would consider the average consumer. The term economists use in situations like this is "selection bias," meaning the pool of individuals involved is actually skewed in some way that's not representative of the larger population. This changes the end results of the research, which might help explain why the saga of the Arch Deluxe ended as it did.

Although there's no way McDonald's could recoup the entire cost of the Arch Deluxe disaster now, a quarter century later, I do have a theory (from my perspective as a consumer, a word I hate so much) that could revive the Arch Deluxe and make it a success in the year 2022. Here's my idea: market the return of the sandwich with some gracious good humor.

A&W recently relaunched its own famous failure, the 1/3-pound burger. When it debuted in the 1980s, the 1/3-pound burger was marketed that way to compete with McDonald's Quarter Pounder. However, customers everywhere made the mistaken assumption that because "4" is bigger than "3," the McDonald's burger was actually larger, and therefore the better deal. Woo, American math skills!

The October 2021 relaunch of A&W's 1/3-pound burger rolled out a ton of marketing renaming the sandwich the 3/9 Burger, accompanied by a really cheeky commercial:

So why can't McDonald's do the same thing with its own flop, the Arch Deluxe? Some self-deprecating humor in a marketing campaign would work perfectly. We all make dismal mistakes. Poking fun of the very thing you messed up is a pretty good way to rescue your (temporarily) botched reputation.

I used to keep a photo gallery of pizzas I dropped on the floor when I was working at a restaurant. When people saw these photos on Instagram, they found them even funnier than I did, especially guests. And guess what? People actually came to the restaurant because of those photos. I didn't serve anyone pizzas I had dropped, but marketing-wise, they worked like a charm.

Here's a free idea, McDonald's: Couple a humorous marketing campaign with a limited-time re-release of the Arch Deluxe original recipe, and curious and/or nostalgic customers will at least buy one to give it a spin. Hey, if people are documenting themselves assembling Land, Air & Sea Burgers from McDonald's silly "hacks" menu, then I think there's a glimmer of hope for a rerelease of a famously misunderstood burger.

Plus, we've changed as consumers (ugh, consumers), at least somewhat. Back in 1996, List explains that "The average person... would rather just have a Big Mac or a Filet-O-Fish and french fries. They don't want the fancy stuff." But in the era of taking photos of everything we eat, maybe we're ready for something a little fancier now. It might have been a sandwich ahead of its time.

In addition, our attitudes these days toward limited-time-only offers have changed a lot. We need a never-ending stream of them. They're nearly a requirement for chain restaurants to stay relevant and get people's attention. I taste this stuff multiple times a month with absolute glee, even if the products themselves turn out not to be any good. I know I'd give the Arch Deluxe another shot just because its limited-time-only status makes it feel like an event.

So, McDonald's, the ball is in your court. You don't need to engineer something new for your menu—just try bringing back something old in a self-aware way.

Call me if you need any other million-dollar ideas. 

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