What can your next burger tell you about the economy?

By Richard Wallace on Wednesday, 13 November 2019

Two all-beef patties, special sauce, lettuce, and a tight domestic labour market with under 4% unemployment—all on a sesame seed bun. What can your next burger tell you about the economy?

When you think of things that are quintessentially American, you probably think of Hollywood, cowboys, Bruce Springsteen, and Big Macs. The iconic hamburger holds great power over our imaginations, even though – as the classic jingle reminds us – it comprises little more than two all-beef patties, special sauce…and the rest. The combination of a popular product and decades of consistent messaging has made McDonalds one of the most globally-recognised brands on earth.

So globally-recognised, in fact, that the Economist even developed the Big Mac Index (1), a worldwide measurement of purchasing-power parity. Since the price and quality of a Big Mac is pretty standardised, and the meal is available in some variety in nearly every country, it ends up saying some instructive and complex things about the world economy.

Imagine achieving the level of brand recognition where economists start naming indexes after your big sellers.

But this is more than just good PR - the Big Mac really does seem to be some kind of economic bellwether. Historically, the Big Mac and Burger King’s Whopper were both introduced during unusually tight labour markets—under 4% unemployment. Any time a fast food sandwich launches, check the Office For National Statistics – it’s likely that unemployment will be down. And as a wave of global wage protests have swept the fast-food sector this year, so Popeyes chicken launched a feted new sandwich in the US. Right on cue.

But it’s not just burgers. Business Insider (2) compiles a list of other strange indicators that a diligent analyst can parse from economic data. For instance, in the UK, ties get slimmer during tough times, and brighter when the going’s good. In 2007, super-skinny black Topman ties were all the rage among teenagers. In 2008, the global economy suffered the worst crash since Wall Street. Coincidence?

Some indicators make sense: the quicker a contractor returns your call, the more baked beans are sold, the more we drink as a nation—the worse an economy tends to be faring. It’s not hard to figure out that cash-strapped contractors, household frugality and self-medication could indicate a level of national distress. But how about the Alligator Population Index (because demand for alligator-skin luxury products lowers the populations of domestic alligator farms) or the Mosquito Bite Index (houses become less well-maintained in recessions, leading to more fallow lawns) or the Buttered Popcorn Index (as citizens flock to the big screen to escape reality).

The interesting thing to note is how these phenomena will begin to tie into comms strategies as big data reveals more and more weird and wonderful trends. We’ve already seen Spotify putting user data at the core of its messaging (3) – and as brands collect and utilise more of our data, it’s not hard to imagine these trends forming the backbone of more highly relevant, current campaigns.

As data becomes more specific, and our methods of using it become more intelligent, it feels as though brands could begin to capitalise on the unusual and thought-provoking relationships their products have with the wider world. Not just finding out the most bored nation on earth by crunching the hours its citizens spend in front of Netflix, but unearthing strange serendipities that humans could never begin to guess at. What can an increase in hand sanitiser sales tell us about a country’s Eurovision victory odds? Probably nothing, but you never know what the machines will end up finding out.

(2) https://www.businessinsider.com/bizarre-economic-indicators-2012-8?r=US&IR=T#buttered-popcorn-index-1
(3) https://www.adweek.com/brand-marketing/spotify-unearths-more-weird-wonderful-data-about-your-playlists-and-listening-habits/

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