Thank you for eat­ing

Meet the PR man for McDon­ald’s

Weekend Herald - - Front Page -

How do you live with your­self?” is a ques­tion Steve Hill has faced a few times. As a se­nior di­rec­tor of global brand at McDon­ald’s, he knows he doesn’t work for ev­ery­one’s favourite brand. It’s a lit­tle like be­ing tobacco lob­by­ist Nick Naylor in the movie Thank You For Smok­ing, and Hill doesn’t feign ig­no­rance of the strong opin­ions peo­ple have about McDon­ald’s, say­ing it’s part of the rea­son he was drawn to the com­pany.

“The one tru­ism of our brand, and one of the rea­sons I wanted to work for the com­pany, is that peo­ple have an opin­ion about it — whether it’s a good opin­ion, a bad opin­ion or an in­dif­fer­ent opin­ion, we’re a cul­tur­ally sig­nif­i­cant brand,” the Chicago-based Hill tells the Her­ald dur­ing a fly­ing visit to New Zealand.

“Some­times that works against us, but it can also work in our favour.”

If it can’t be loved by ev­ery­one, what McDon­ald’s does want to be is “one of the most demo­cratic brands in the world”.

“We wel­come ev­ery­one, whether they’re in their py­ja­mas or in high spir­its af­ter a night out. We don’t take sides. We’re not po­lit­i­cal in that sense.”

You aren’t likely to see McDon­ald’s fol­low Nike’s ex­am­ple by tak­ing a po­ten­tially di­vi­sive po­lit­i­cal stand. Nike has upset some Amer­i­cans — and de­lighted oth­ers — by us­ing US foot­ball player Colin Kaeper­nick, known for kneel­ing in protest while the na­tional an­them is played, as the face of an ad­ver­tis­ing cam­paign.

Hill counts him­self as an ad­mirer of the brav­ery and strat­egy un­der­pin­ning the Nike cam­paign, but that doesn’t mean he’ll copy it.

“Some­times brands can look to jump onto band­wag­ons that they have no right to jump onto,” Hill tells the Week­end Her­ald.

“What Nike is do­ing is bril­liant, be­cause it’s true to what they’ve been do­ing for 30 years.

“But for us and our po­ten­tial to be more po­lit­i­cal, I don’t see that as a space we would en­ter any time soon.”

The use of democ­racy as a metaphor for McDon­ald’s is fit­ting, given that the com­pany has faced some of the same chal­lenges as the mod­ern demo­cratic sys­tem. Chief among them, fake news.

Cow eye­balls in the burg­ers, worm meat as a filler and mu­tant lab an­i­mals are just some of the hoaxes that have fol­lowed the brand.

Hill notes that de­spite on­go­ing ef­forts, the com­pany’s bat­tle against this mis­in­for­ma­tion is far from won.

“Re­cently my 10-year-old per­pet­u­ated two myths about the brand: one was about pink slime in our chicken McNuggets and the other was about yoga mats in our burg­ers,” he says, chuck­ling at the irony of a pro­pa­gan­dist’s off­spring not read­ing from the com­pany script.

The only way to counter the in­ac­cu­racy of th­ese anec­dotes, says Hill, is to tell the sto­ries be­hind the brand — its pro­duce sourc­ing and prepa­ra­tion prac­tices. But that is no longer as easy as push­ing out a few ra­dio and TV ads and hop­ing for the best.

As a busi­ness that sprawls across the world, McDon­ald’s isn’t al­ways in con­trol of its story or the way it’s told. In fact, the best — and some­times worst — McDon­ald’s sto­ries emerge or­gan­i­cally, with the com­pany hav­ing vir­tu­ally no in­put.

“Simple things can re­ally take off in huge ways,” Hill says.

“It might be some­thing as crazy as some­one go­ing through a driv­ethrough on a horse, but those sorts of mo­ments are the ones that cre­ate the most noise and con­ver­sa­tion — per­haps more so than tra­di­tional ad­ver­tis­ing.

“The fu­ture of marketing is al­most be­com­ing PR in an odd way.”

But McDon­ald’s has had to learn to take the good with the bad. This week, for ex­am­ple, the com­pany made head­lines as news sto­ries re­ported that a man­ager told a staffer not to talk to cus­tomers in te reo dur­ing Ma¯ori Lan­guage Week. It wasn’t McDon­ald’s pol­icy, but it did few favours for the brand’s im­age in the local mar­ket.

Add to this the con­stant stream of sto­ries about cus­tomers be­hav­ing badly, and it quickly be­comes clear that the McDon­ald’s democ­racy is some­times brutish, nasty and down­right weird.

At a re­cent speak­ing event, a mem­ber of the McDon­ald’s team asked the au­di­ence to raise their hands if they ate at the fast-food chain from time to time.

Al­most no one lifted a hand — odd, given data that shows about 1.5 mil­lion Ki­wis buy from the com­pany ev­ery week.

The em­bar­rass­ment the au­di­ence felt about ac­knowl­edg­ing their eat­ing habits wasn’t sur­pris­ing, given that it has be­come al­most fash­ion­able to use McDon­ald’s as the sym­bol for ev­ery­thing wrong with the fast-food in­dus­try. Th­ese days, you don’t have to look far to find an en­emy of the com­pany.

“We’re def­i­nitely the poster child for our cat­e­gory,” says Hill.

That is partly be­cause McDon­ald’s is the big­gest player in the mar­ket, but it’s also be­cause films such as Su­per­size Me have drawn at­ten­tion to the dan­gers of eat­ing too much of the com­pany’s prod­uct.

Hill says the doc­u­men­tary’s im­pact ex­tended far be­yond its 100-minute run­ning time.

“The pe­riod af­ter Su­per­size Me was re­ally in­ter­est­ing for the brand,” he says.

“We started chang­ing many of our for­mu­la­tions, re­duc­ing salt and su­gar. It was re­ally a cat­a­lyst for change.”

The film and oth­ers that fol­lowed also co­in­cided with a shift in con­sumer be­hav­iour, with many peo­ple opt­ing for health­ier or more gourmet op­tions. Amer­i­can brands like Chipo­tle gained mo­men­tum, of­ten at the ex­pense of McDon­ald’s, and the com­pany had to re­spond. To ex­tend the demo­cratic no­tion even fur­ther, the (healthy) Greens were on the rise.

McDon­ald’s re­sponse in­cluded the launch of Cre­ate Your Taste, which al­lowed con­sumers to make their own burg­ers via a dig­i­tal kiosk. At the time, it seemed a per­fect way into the gourmet mar­ket. The only prob­lem was that con­sumers weren’t lovin’ it.

There were too many choices, cus­tomers be­came frus­trated that they couldn’t or­der at the drive-through and it un­der­mined the McDon­ald’s rep­u­ta­tion for speed. That left the com­pany with lit­tle choice but to pull the plug — but not ev­ery­thing has gone down the drain.

“Cre­ate Your Taste wasn’t a com­plete fail­ure. It’s still alive in part,” says Hill.

One as­pect that con­sumers warmed to was the use of dig­i­tal kiosks, and McDon­ald’s has now an­nounced plans to in­stall those at more stores across the world.

What the com­pany learnt was that cus­tomers weren’t nec­es­sar­ily in­ter­ested in build­ing their own burg­ers — but they did like hav­ing con­trol of how they or­dered and re­ceived those burg­ers.

While Cre­ate Your Taste didn’t go ex­actly ac­cord­ing to plan, Hill says the com­pany isn’t done with ex­per­i­ment­ing yet — par­tic­u­larly in the early-adopt­ing Aussie and Kiwi mar­kets which spawned the All-Day Break­fast and McCafe.

“I see this part of the world on the lead­ing edge of the change we have at the or­gan­i­sa­tion,” says Hill.

“The con­sumer in this mar­ket is quite de­mand­ing and picks up trends quickly.”

Which is to say that McDon­ald’s rel­e­vance de­pends on a crowd which is al­ways will­ing to change its mind if some­thing else comes along.

That said, whether openly or in dis­guise at drive-throughs late at night, 1.5 mil­lion Ki­wis a week are still vot­ing with their wal­lets and stick­ing with the Republic of McDon­ald’s.

Now, if only they could sort out that pink slime prob­lem.

The one tru­ism of our brand . . . is that peo­ple have an opin­ion about it — whether it’s a good opin­ion, a bad opin­ion or an in­dif­fer­ent opin­ion, we’re a cul­tur­ally sig­nif­i­cant brand. Steve Hill, McDon­ald’s (left)

Photo / Bloomberg

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