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McDonald’s gives the people what they want

It’s not just cheap burgers anymore. The company has started to talk the talk on sustainability—do they walk the walk?

Brittany McNamara

February 1, 2013

5 Min Read
McDonald’s gives the people what they want

Picture the golden arches and what do you think of? More than likely, it’s fast, cheap, greasy food filled with salt, saturated fat and other specious ingredients.

But McDonald’s is bent on changing that image. The company has taken up the banner of transparency with its nutrition and sourcing information, and has introduced environmental stewardship initiatives into its supply chain.

Product packaging now features QR codes for customers to scan to get nutrition information. All U.S. franchises now serve Marine Stewardship Council–certified fish. McDonald’s Australia rolled out a smartphone app called TrackMyMacca’s that traces ingredients from menu items back to their source. And McDonald’s Canada has been answering all its customers’ ingredient- and nutrition-related questions on its website.

And it’s still all in the name of giving consumers what they want.

According to the company’s website, McDonald’s mission is “to be our customers’ favorite place and way to eat.” They have more than 34,000 restaurants worldwide in 119 countries serving almost 69 million customers per day. It’s a tough job to please so many.

“The most important thing is that McDonald’s is making those changes because it lives by serving the needs of every man and every family—it cannot have any other purpose,” said Peter Wennström, president of Swedish consultancy The Healthy Marketing Team. “The minute they stop doing that, they’re dead.”

More than just lip service?

The company has rolled out several sustainability-focused initiatives in a few of its developed markets, namely Canada, Australia and the United States. But is it all just lip service? Whether the company walks the walk as much as it talks the talk is worthy of exploration.

Suffice it to say that, for now, they’re talking the right talk—sustainability and transparency are on trend, and McDonald’s has the opportunity to own that conversation in the fast food market. As health, wellness and sustainability become driving forces in consumer purchasing decisions, McDonald’s needs a selling point that allows consumers to permit themselves to eat their food.

“The concepts of motivation and permission are very important in the areas of food and health and lifestyle,” Wennström said. “They need to keep the motivation up by having great-tasting food, but then they also need to add permission for you to go into McDonalds.”

Permission is the tough one. Customers consider things like nutritional value, sustainability or whether food is sourced locally or not. Wennström calls these “permissibility factors.” McDonald’s needs to have these factors in order for customers to continue to eat there.

“They need to serve the mass market. And the mass market—their perception of what’s good is constantly changing,” Wennström said.

The power of transparency

One thing that consumers want is answers to basic questions about their food. “What’s in your Chicken McNuggets?” “Why should I eat anything that has ingredients like ‘dimethylpolysiloxane’ embedded into it?”

So, in August 2012, McDonald’s Canada gave customers the floor, and set up a public question-and-answer forum on its website. Canadian consumers simply go onto the website and post a question about food currently on the Canadian menu. Within a few days McDonald’s should respond. Sometimes the response is a brief statement while other times it may be a video. By having their questions answered, customers can feel more comfortable with McDonald’s as a food option.

In keeping with this idea of clarity, McDonald’s decided this month to redesign their packaging to incorporate QR codes that provide nutrition information. All bags and beverage cups host QR codes that can be scanned to find facts and stories about the food it contains through a mix of illustrations and text.

“Essentially the QR codes were really a way that we could give our customers a relevant way in order to get that information,” said Christina Tyler, public relations manager for McDonald’s USA. “This is just the next opportunity to really help give the information to the customers where they’re at and the way they want it.”

On the sustainability side, McDonald’s decided this month to serve only Marine Stewardship Council (MSC)-certified fish. MSC certification ensures that the fish consumers eat came from a sustainable wild-capture fishery.

“We’re very excited about our partnership with McDonald’s,” said Kerry Coughlin, MSC regional direct for the Americas. “The fact that McDonald’s is now stepping forward to communicate to its 25 million [U.S.] customers a day that they are sourcing sustainable fish for all of their fish menu items is just a huge boost for awareness around sustainable seafood issues and empowering consumers to make choices that supports sustainable fisheries.”

All of McDonald’s fish in the U.S. is MSC-certified Alaska Pollock, a very large and conservatively managed fish source.

According to Tyler, McDonald’s has actually been serving MSC certified fish since 2007; they just hadn’t gone through the assessment process to obtain certification until recently.

“It’s evident from our partnership with McDonald’s that they have a genuine interest in the sustainability of their supply chain and that they’re taking concrete steps, concrete actions to back that commitment up,” Coughlin said.

Consumers of MSC certified fish are able to trace the fish they eat back to the fishery it came from. The boxes that McDonald’s Filet-O-Fish and new Fish McBites are served in will have a code that you can then use to trace back the fish.

More to come

On top of these recent changes, it’s likely McDonald’s will continue to make more.

“Each year we accomplish a Nutrition Progress Report following on our 2011 commitment to offer to improve nutritious choices,” Tyler said. “We’re continuing to look at ways that we can balance great taste and great value.”

Currently, McDonald’s is working to figure out how to improve more upon their coffee. And Wennström said it’s possible that customers may see the company cooperating more with local stakeholders and incorporating more local sourcing in the future.

So while McDonald’s isn’t the super nutritious and sustainable corporation some would like it to be, at least it’s trying.

“Their whole purpose is to be good to the people they serve, and you cannot sustain being a globally leading fast food chain by serving bad food with bad ethics, bad nutrition and bad sustainability,” said Wennström. “You will be washed away.”

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