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How McDonald’s got consumers to fall back in love with burgers

How McDonald’s got consumers to fall back in love with burgers

By Clark Turner

When fast food restaurants are being labelled in the press as the main culprits for rising obesity in the UK, to step into the top marketing job at McDonald’s is something many would run from.

But for Jill McDonald (pictured) it was a challenge she couldn’t say no to. Turning around the chain with a radical overhaul, she has helped deliver eight successive quarters of positive sales. Her efforts were recognised recently when she won the Marketing Society’s Marketer of the Year Award.

Jill’s transformation of McDonald’s began in 2006 after she joined from a top marketing role at British Airways. During 16 years with the airline she climbed to the top position as Global Marketing and In-Flight Business with responsibilities spanning global advertising, sponsorship, design, research, in-flight retail, entertainment and employee engagement.

“I’d done every marketing job going with BA and was at the top so needed to move on to progress my career,” she explained to UTalkMarketing. “McDonald’s is one of the world’s biggest brands and having gone through some difficult times and after meeting the inspiring team, it was too good an opportunity to miss.”

As senior vice-president and chief marketing officer for the UK and Northern Europe, it’s a massive role for Jill. Around two million meals a day are served by the 1,200 restaurants in the UK alone.

“It’s all about understanding the context of markets,” she revealed. “The UK is the biggest market in the region by far so it’s the old 80:20 rule focusing on the biggest job.

“The first six to eight weeks provided a valuable insight cutting to the chase of the business before getting bogged down in the day-to-day detail. I got a real feel from listening to customers and the team.”

Positioning involved re-establishing the brand as “a modern progressive burger business” getting employees not to feel ashamed about selling burgers (“It’s what we do!”), while getting the public to fall back in love with the burger though communicating confidence in the restaurant offering.

The first step was to fix the basics – ensuring that restaurants were clean, fast and pleasant, functioning within operational metrics.

On the back of this, the plan was to challenge the perceptions of consumers by being progressive and surprising - so delivering “good food fast” as opposed to “fast food” and serving Rainforest Alliance coffee.

“It’s all about building trust and that means being open and transparent,” Jill added. “So, for example our website (created by Avenue A:Razorfish) allows consumers to visit our abattoirs and poultry farms and explore the food channels.

“We’re not an online retailer but we need to be geared to young adults and engage proactively and the site has now has had one million hits.”

“Meanwhile, in our PR we need to engage with journalists. They can write what they like but we need to ensure they have the facts.”

Promotions plays a key role in marketing for McDonald’s and fall into two camps. Firstly, giving away gift with purchase, but also seasonal and limited edition food promotions. In an increasingly competitive market, these are strategically priced to encourage trial and act as a call to action to the restaurants.

At a strategic level the approach to marketing remains the same across different geographical territories with a three-tier menu consisting of Poundsaver, Core Products and Premium Level Products.

“The aim is to deliver good affordable prices at different price points, “Jill explained. “Within that, local recipes might reflect different regional tastes in what is a very decentralised business.

“We don’t impose UK creative in other countries and marketers can decide whether to use it or not. It’s important they remain in contact and in tune with local consumer.”

In the fight back against obesity, fruit bags and carrot sticks were added to the menu some five years ago. But are they generating real sales, or is this just PR posturing?

Jill admits most consumers still visit a McDonald’s to buy burgers and fries but because of the scale of the business some 30 million bags have been sold. As one of the biggest providers of cut fruit and carrot sticks in Britain, it’s made a significant impact on the nation’s health. “It’s all about offering a choice and delivering a balance,” she added.

The most recent campaign is for Happy Meals. Rather then the standard ‘in your face’ advertising, this campaign from retained agency Leo Burnett, has a more family friendly tone as kids and parents get planting.

“Who do we want to react with in getting the quality food message across? Mums. They pay for their kids meals and are the primary decision maker,” explained Jill. “They care about what their kids eat.

“We’re addressing this with our fruit bags and carrot sticks, but are equally as proud of our core products, which at the end of the day are just made from beef, potatoes and chicken breast.”

She continued, “The other ads have been used to deliver a short term objective of communicating promotions. But this is a long-term campaign with a different message and is all about shifting perceptions of the brand, so we needed a different tonality in the ad. But it’s still very clearly for McDonald’s and not someone else.”

So is the message getting through? It’s too early to register the impact of this new campaign but tracking shows that the key metrics are moving in the right direction.

“McDonald’s is a brand which polarises,” Jill admits. “But for the 70 per cent of UK population that use McDonalds, the messages are getting through. Figures show our sales performance is the best yet.”

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