If someone asked you to name the world’s most recognisable brands, I guarantee McDonald’s would be on the top of your list. McDonald’s is the world’s largest fast food chain, with the company ranking #106 on the Fortune 500 list.
A company is only as strong as its brand, and from the Golden Arches to the Happy Meal, McDonald’s is one of the best known on the planet. But what’s just as important is what that brand stands for. What used to come to mind when we thought of McDonald’s was typically their golden French fries, low-priced burgers and crispy McNuggets.
But it seems that these days Mickey-D’s is associated with negative images: fat, sugar, sodium. Meat of questionable origin. Mistreatment and underpayment of their over 440,000 employees worldwide. The McDonald’s name has lost its lustre over the past decade or so. The fast food giant has recently seen a huge 2% decline in YOY revenue in 2014, their biggest decrease since 1997. In a press release earlier this year, the company revealed their sales figures and made the following statement: “2014 was a challenging year for McDonald’s around the world. Our results declined as unforeseen events and weak operating performance pressured results in each of our geographic segments.” So why is McDonald’s in such a massive sales slump?
The answer is pretty clear: bad publicity.
Over the past few years, restaurant workers have been publicly battling the company for higher wages. On top of that, the company’s employee Budget Planner was released to the public, revealing some not-so-pleasant advice for their employees. These include getting a second job in order to earn a living wage and advising them to eat healthy and NOT to consume the fast food that the company itself sells.
Furthermore, recent documentary films like Super Size Me and books like Food Inc. and Fast Food Nation have been revealing the truth behind the fast food industry’s practices and how their meat is sourced. This has forced consumers to focus on what’s actually in the food we eat. A public backlash against fast food has been forming, alongside a major resurgence of home cooking and a focus on general health and wellness. So amidst all of this bad PR, how can McDonald’s reclaim its former glory? Well, they are trying…really hard.
The company – along with the fast food industry in general – have previously relied on an “ignorance is bliss” mentality. But things are changing. McDonald’s has embarked on one of the biggest marketing campaigns the company has ever seen. It’s called Our Food, Your Questions, and it’s working hard to give customers a level of transparency. They are seemingly trying to answer, with honesty, the question on all customers’ minds:
What’s in my food?
McDonald’s has hired former MythBusters host Grant Imahara to be its new paid spokesperson, who has put his reputation on the line to host of a series of behind-the-scenes videos to reveal how the food is made. This begs further questions: will the American public believe what they see? After all these years, is McDonald’s trustworthy enough to be believed?
What are McDonald’s Chicken McNuggets made of?
Fair question. This seems to be one of the most popular topics in the new campaign, and a video tries to clear that up. McDonald’s is striving to quash the myth that their chicken nuggets contain the controversial “pink slime” or “pink goo” that has haunted our nightmares of late. The spokesperson specifically claims that “pink slime is not used in Chicken McNuggets.” Instead, the video shows exactly how they are made, from the point where the chicken arrives in the plant, until they are shipped to the restaurants:
Though they clearly do not use the grotesque pink slime, the images are not all that appetising. The ground meat concoction spewing out of the machinery does not look that different in my opinion. Judge for yourself: The other thought making my stomach churn is the fact that they “add skin back in for flavour.” In the spirit of transparency, the company released a full list of ingredients on their website. Yes, that includes all 25 of them.
Are McDonald’s French fries made from real potatoes?
I don’t think anyone would argue with me if I made the claim that McDonald’s French fries are one of the most addicting foods on the planet. And I’m sure that’s not a coincidence. The company released a video showing how their fries are made. They make it clear that yes, their French fries are made from real potatoes:
To me, French fries are pretty easy to make. They have 3 simple ingredients, right? Potatoes, salt, and oil. Well, not McDonald’s. Their fries contain 19 ingredients. Here is the video from McDonald’s breaking down this laundry list of odd-sounding ingredient names:
OK, you’ve successfully convinced us that the French fries come from actual potatoes. But what about the other 18 ingredients? A list was published on the official website. It’s clear most of these are used for “maintaining consistency.” But most of these are chemicals. The tide is turning turned towards the mentality that “if you can’t pronounce it, you shouldn’t eat it.” So what are these ingredients? Have you ever heard of them? Are they safe to eat? The company’s so-called “answers” tend to bring up more questions.
So…is this campaign doing more harm than good?
Are these “how the food is made” videos helping McDonald’s boost their image? As sales continue to slide, it appears that the scales have not yet tipped in their favor. Some of the images can be gut wrenching, and by revealing what is being added to the food items, customers are learning what they are really putting into their mouths. And it can be a turn off. For a brand known for the flavour of their food, I doubt this is putting any minds at ease.
I can definitely see these videos could turn customers away from going to the restaurants and opting to make these meals in their own homes. At least you know what is going into your food, and these meals aren’t particularly difficult to whip up. So let’s think back to the most basic question:
Why do people go to McDonald’s?
Let’s face facts here: nobody thinks what they are eating from McDonald’s is healthy. They go for a quick, convenient, cheap meal, and it’s consistent every time. McDonald’s is an indulgence. We know we shouldn’t do it all the time. It’s a rare treat that we are allowing ourselves and our kids to enjoy. So at this point in history, McDonald’s strategy is not to gain new customers (I mean, does anyone in this country NOT know the brand). It’s to hold on to its customers and maintain a loyal base that will keep coming back.
But clearly they are not doing a good job of that. It seems that bad publicity is what continues to plague the brand. And they have struggled to combat this for decades. The only way to change their image is from the inside out, and maintain a consistent brand message. They must go back to basics and figure out what McDonald’s stands for.
From what I can tell, McDonald’s has two choices:
Embrace who they are and focus on what do what they do best: their signature burgers, fries and chicken products. They must rely on their famous flavours, a sense of nostalgia, value and major brand recognition.
Otherwise, they must truly embrace what consumers are seeking – and that’s real transparency. What is actually happening on those factory farms and in the slaughterhouses? Where are the animals coming from and how are they being treated? List the ingredients on the boxes and containers so we know what’s actually in the food we’re eating. If McDonald’s truly had nothing to hide, then they would have no problem showing this level of honesty to consumers. McDonald’s has to learn how to evolve as times and tastes change.
People are now buying local, fresh food and consuming it in their own homes. The terms “organic,” “growth hormones,” “ free-range” and “grass-fed” are dominating our vernacular, and other fast-food options such as Chipotle are beginning to satisfy consumers’ demands. It’s clear that customers are demanding true transparency – and until McDonald’s is ready to provide it, I believe that they’ll continue to see their sales slipping away.