Brand Doctors: McDonald’s food. More questions

Industry experts suggest that perceptions about the QSR's menu items won't change any time soon.

Just before McDonald’s began dealing with nut allergy concerns, McDonald’s Canada’s CEO did a bit of brand self-diagnosis and seems to have come away perturbed. “I will tell you straight out that the reputation we have for food is absolutely unfair, unrealistic and a total… fill in the blank,” John Betts is quoted saying in the Toronto Star. His frustration is understandable, given McDonald’s investment in a big, seemingly effective marketing campaign to change the perception that it was merely junk food.

Is Betts’ assessment accurate? Strategy asked a panel of Brand Doctors to diagnose McDonald’s healthfulness and, if needed, recommend a treatment.

Nellie Kim, partner, VP, creative director, Lg2

NellieKimWith such a concerted effort to zone in on health, there’s noticeable neglect towards what made McDonald’s famous in the first place — their classic burgers and fries. Long before people cared about “too many antibiotics” or “where their meat was sourced,” McDonald’s was good at making burgers, and even better at selling them. The brand knew exactly what it stood for, and so did the customer.

But the company’s time, money and focus are being directed towards satisfying the “customers’ preferences for healthier and more local choices,” which, when left untreated, can result in a confusing menu and an even more confusing brand message to the consumer.

What might help McDonald’s is if they didn’t try to be everything to everyone, but rather focus on embracing the positive aspects of their brand DNA as a filter for their on-going communications. Just because a brand ignores its DNA doesn’t mean consumers will.

For example, McDonald’s should remove their 520 calorie “Keep Calm, Caesar On” salad from the menu. Is it a salad, or the equivalent of a Big Mac in a bowl? This product having as much of an identity crisis as the brand positioning itself. It’s enough to question if the company genuinely stands behind its claims of a healthier commitment to customers.

Changing consumer perception of the McDonald’s brand will take time, but it should start with a healthy dose of self-awareness.

Emma Hancock, partner, Heroes & Villains

Emma Hancock -smallWhy is McDonald’s held up to a higher standard than the rest of the chains? Is it because they started drawing our attention to what was in their food? Probably. It’s such a risky route to go, inviting people behind the curtain and hoping it will sit well. I’m sure the research told them there were myths about McDonald’s food and I’m sure some well-paid person said, “We must dispel those myths!” I just don’t believe that anyone craves McDonald’s for a quick-hit of nutrition.

I have been programmed since the 1970s to regard McDonald’s as a treat (thank you Ronald and the Hamburglar), not a daily ritual. Now all these years later, McDonald’s wants me to get to know the cows they make into our burgers. Well everybody loves a sausage, but nobody wants to know how it’s made. Go ahead and reassure me that my Big Mac is healthier, but don’t ruin my fast food fix. It’s called a happy meal for a reason.

So don’t panic, McDonald’s. Stay the course, and be true to what you are and what you offer: comfort food made fast, fresh and affordable. In a world full of chaos and fear, you are suddenly more relevant than ever. And by the way, your competition would kill for those fries.