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How the Mighty (Wings) Have Fallen: McDonald’s Fails Again With Transparency Campaign

Three Reasons Former Titan of TV Advertising Fails in the Digital Age

Last week, it was announced that McDonald’s profit fell 30 percent in the third quarter, the third consecutive quarter in which the company has missed Wall Street’s sales and profit expectations.

Part of the blame may fall to the way the business is run – the brand plans to streamline menu offerings and speed up food production time – and some may be chalked up to changing consumer tastes, I see the real problem as this; McDonald’s is a broadcast-advertising-era titan that has never learned how to adjust to the social age of marketing.

Lack of Transparency

What's in a chicken mcnugget
Ladies and gentlemen: your chicken McNugget ingredients.

Issue number one for McDonald’s is transparency. Chipotle has built a model on being transparent about where its ingredients come from (coincidentally, Chipotle’s third quarter revenue soared 31.1 percent). McDonald’s can’t do this, because many of their products have an ingredients list as long as your arm.

The brand has only recently realized how serious their perception problem is, which explains the recent launch of the brand’s “Our Food, Your Questions” campaign.

As Naomi Starkman noted in a recent Time article, “McDonald’s has a serious image problem and a sagging bottom line, which might explain its sudden willingness to fling the barn door open as a way to shed its reputation for serving mass-produced, unhealthy food. Showing the public how the sausage is made may win favor with some consumers, but a better strategy for the fast food giant would be to make truly meaningful commitments to sustainability.”

In the end, this is where the true issue lies – even if McDonald’s promises transparency, it’s really just lip service. Most of the content on the (difficult to navigate) “Our Food, Your Questions” website is geared toward telling why you should like their ingredients, rather than removing the ones people are bothered by.

Example 1: To the question “What’s in a Chicken McNugget?” the brand answers “Chicken — white meat chicken. The chicken, which is cut from the tenderloin, breast and rib, gets ground with a bit of chicken skin and a marinade for flavor and to act as a binder.”

mcnugget ingredients
All Natural!

This would lead a sane person to believe that McNuggets are made from chicken and marinade, right? However, one look at the ingredients list shows that a McNugget contains: White Boneless Chicken, Water, Food Starch-Modified, Salt, Seasoning (Autolyzed Yeast Extract, Salt, Wheat Starch, Natural Flavoring [Botanical Source], Safflower Oil, Dextrose, Citric Acid), Sodium Phosphates, Natural Flavor (Botanical Source). Battered and Breaded with: Water, Enriched Flour (Bleached Wheat Flour, Niacin, Reduced Iron, Thiamin Mononitrate, Riboflavin, Folic Acid), Yellow Corn Flour, Bleached Wheat Flour, Food Starch-Modified, Salt, Leavening (Baking Soda, Sodium Acid Pyrophosphate, Sodium Aluminum Phosphate, Monocalcium Phosphate, Calcium Lactate), Spices, Wheat Starch, Dextrose, Corn Starch. After that, it is prepared in Vegetable Oil (Canola Oil, Corn Oil, Soybean Oil, Hydrogenated Soybean Oil with TBHQ and Citric Acid added to preserve freshness) with dimethylpolysiloxane added as an antifoaming agent.

This is actually pretty despicable if you think about it–claiming to answer all of your questions, but then answering them with deliberately misleading answers.

Example 2: In response to the question “What kind of chicken do you use in a chicken sandwich?” McDonald’s answers, “In our McChicken sandwiches, we use a patty that’s made with a blend of dark and white meat chicken, so it’s juicy and flavorful.” Basically a marketing-heavy non-answer.

Lack of Honesty

McDonalds Transparency
This guy’s trying to make a McMonkey out of you!

This goes hand in hand with transparency, but some of McDonald’s content seems to go beyond obfuscation and veers into flat-out dishonesty.

As I noted in a previous article, McDonald’s Moms Quality Correspondents content reads like it was written by the company’s PR department. I question whether these moms are real people, because I’ve never heard anyone talk like this. I groaned to myself when I read one “mom’s” assertion that “the family dining concept where the time spent eating with the family is deemed to be an important part of the experience. The PlayPlace and the toy are all designed to help to enrich that experience.” I’ve had a lot of family dinner experiences, and none of them were enhanced by me playing with a plastic Batman toy.

“If they really understood consumers, who would really write and okay that?” asks Steve Farnsworth, Chief Marketing Officer for the Steveology Group. “Who thought it was important to parents? It shows a complete disregard and disinterest for the consumer and a strong desire to check off the task off the list and move on; to say ‘We wrote about how educational our toys are, box checked, job done.’ There is no one actually capturing parents concerns in a piece of content – it makes them happy, my kids are hungry.

McDonald’s is attempting to apply the old advertising tricks to content marketing. They think, “If we say we are great, they will believe it.” Unfortunately for them, this is not the case.

Lack of Self-Awareness

McDonald’s has shown countless times that they are totally clueless when it comes to modern marketing. They spend more and more on TV ads for less and less results, and when you see their social media you’ll understand why. This is a brand that has absolutely no idea how to have honest interactions with fans or to start meaningful conversation.

Last month, I cited this this post about McNuggets as an example of McDOnald’s anemic social media presence. This post is not structured to guide comments in any direction. As you can see, some of the comments near the top are positive and are about McNuggets. As you go down the list, however, the tone starts to change, Comments include:

-Where did the bbq ranch burger go?
-Sad to hear iced coffee isn’t $1 anymore
-Mc Greedy. This is why I don’t eat this overpriced garbage any longer.
-Good job I just went through your drive-through for an iced coffee it took you 20 minutes.
-I just read that chicken nuggets have 50 different ingredients

budweiser sucks
Don’t forget me – I’m failing too!

When a social media post is not structured correctly, it opens itself up to becoming a forum to complain about the brand, especially for a brand with as many complaints as McDonald’s. I would posit that McDonald’s social media presence actually hurts then. Not only do their posts turn into full-fledged assaults on the brand, the company’s lack of meaningful responses to the deluge of negativity lends an aura of truth to the negative comments.

Budweiser is another brand that has faltered in the modern era. Try watching football on a Sunday without being inundated by Budweiser ads, yet the brand has been losing market share steadily for years.

Until about 10 years ago, it was easy to saturate the airwaves with advertisements and move your product to the top – people really had no other sources of information. I can think of countless iconic Bud ads from my youth. Now, however, social media has allowed the people to lead the conversation, and many of them are saying, “Hey, this beer sucks!”

Bud sets themselves up for failure with posts like this one, reading “Our mash includes the highest quality rice, which smooths out the taste and adds a crispness to the beer. It’s an expensive addition, but we think it’s worth every penny.”

This is an example of a brand telling you what they are instead of living it, and opened this post up to comments like:

– But you buy the worst barley
– Expensive rice?! lmmmfffao! any kind of rice is super cheap!
– stop watering down the brew
– Thy act like thy doin us a favor by sayin thy by expensive rice…. wtfff??? rice in any brand is cheap as hell. #stop lyin budweiser!

Both of these brands need to look in the mirror – no one believes that McDonald’s is using the freshest ingredients, nor do they believe that rice is an expensive addition to beer. In the social media age, brands can no longer define themselves to consumers. Poor quality and a lack of transparency are bringing these old industry titans down, while a new slate of more enlightened and open brands surge to the top.

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