How is it that, in 2016, one of the world’s largest and most valuable brands is just now realizing the importance of a strong digital team? This pivot by McDonald’s represents a prime example of ineffective corporate culture that Unilever CMO Keith Weed calls a generation of marketers leading business today who are bluffing about their knowledge of the digital landscape. Maybe that’s a reason why, at the same time the company is on-boarding Millennials in droves, a number of senior executives are leaving.
Modern thinking about the importance of social media and digital marketing would argue that expansion of social audiences should net more foot (and drive-thru) traffic among younger demographics and further brand loyalty. The key question: is this new digital team poised to tackle the super-sized image problem the burger giant faces among those same younger consumers, or are they simply going to create shallow hype via social that will ultimately fail to produce the results executives are banking on? My guess is the latter, and in the end the digital marketing leadership will probably be blamed for wasting a ton of money. The true failure will be the inability (or perhaps execs simply refusing) to acknowledge the reality of the brand’s core image in the minds of Millennials.
Why? Because the company is simply trying to mimic what has worked with other big brands when it comes to Millennials but has failed to address the core issue with its brand; Gen-Xers like me from middle-class families grew up in the 80’s with McDonald’s as a regular part of our experience, but the youngest generations’ formative years came with the narrative that McDonald’s is the big, bad evil empire that is making America fat. That’s probably why, according to the company’s own research, only 1-in-5 Millennials have ever tried a Big Mac.
Remember the Morgan Spurlock documentary Super Size Me? Millennials do, because it hit screens across the U.S. when they were kids (2004). Two years later the feature film Fast Food Nation followed (2006), a fictional movie based largely on an investigative journalism series by Eric Schlosser in Rolling Stone that became the NYT best-selling book Fast Food Nation: The Dark Side of the All-American Meal.
McDonald’s digital efforts have been a lot like their menu and pricing strategy: inconsistent and all over the map. Every previous effort McDonald’s has made to reach Millennials has failed. In 2015, McDonald’s UK launched “Channel Us” a video influencer campaign geared towards Millennials, but eventually got the axe due to lack of interest according to Netimperative. In 2013 the company launched “McWraps” that directly targeted Millennial consumers, but they failed to bite and the McWrap was scrapped earlier this year.
It is vital that McDonald’s recognize the brand perception ingrained in Millennials and work to implement operational and cultural changes that are both sincere and true in order to win them back, not another marketing campaign driven by younger professionals. In the modern digital era authenticity is key, as McDonald’s should have learned last year with its expensive “Signs” campaign, which featured a centerpiece TV spot from Leo Burnett that aired during NFL games and premiered during the Golden Globe Awards. The campaign focused on the community impact that McDonald’s franchises have had over the past 20 years but the reaction on social media was swift and harsh, immediately pulling the brand into issues like wages, working conditions, quality of food, etc. Being tone deaf to that reaction is a key failure for company leadership, who seem to believe that marketing ploys trying to make the 61-year-old brand seem cool or hip, rather than actual operational and quality improvements, are going to make a difference.
You can’t hire a bunch of creative Millennials and hope they’ll turn your brand around with shallow, meaningless social media campaigns. McDonald’s might want to take some cues from Starbucks CEO Howard Shultz about the vital importance of true corporate social responsibility and the quality-of-life for employees. “We can’t be in business just to make money. We must balance profit with conscience and humanity and benevolence and do what’s right for our people and our communities. And we are living proof over a 24-year history as a public company we can do all those things and create long-term value for our shareholders,” he said.