ANALYSIS: Obesity issue has fast-food chains reordering PR efforts

In response to changing attitudes about nutrition, fast-food chains are now concentrating on their customers with amended menus and PR tactics.

In response to changing attitudes about nutrition, fast-food chains are now concentrating on their customers with amended menus and PR tactics.

As the media continues to sound a drumbeat surrounding what's been termed the nation's "obesity epidemic," fast-food restaurants have decided they must respond with healthier menu alternatives, as well as the PR to support those products. Cynics attribute the wave of new offerings to fear of lawsuits. McDonald's has already faced one suit from a man blaming it for making him overweight. The common sentiment holds that lawyers who once circled tobacco companies like sharks sensing blood in the water have now turned their attention to fast-food companies. But food-industry watchers note that there's more prompting fast-food outlets to alter their menus than just the specter of litigation. Fast-food sales have at best been flat in recent years. Consumers want healthier offerings and the quick-serve restaurants have been forced to respond to grow the bottom lines. "It's a case where the court of public opinion and the court of law must both be satisfied," says one long-time food industry expert who requested anonymity. While in the past, fast-food chains could position themselves as destinations for occasional treats or splurges, such messages don't work in today's world of non-traditional families where eating out is a way of life, notes Diane Fox, a partner with Food Beat, a Wheaton, IL-based firm that monitors menu trends. "Eating out for the average consumer is no longer an indulgence," Fox notes. As a result, "there is going to be a need for operators to offer choices. The industry has a certain responsibility to offer choices." Bob Goldin, EVP with Technomic, a Chicago-based restaurant-consulting group, agrees. "I think this is a great opportunity for them to get some positive press," he says of quick-serve restaurants. "It's not a revolution, but it is a rapid evolution. I have been surprised how quickly some chains have reacted. I think the industry is under a much more intense spotlight." While Subway led the way in talking about health, Goldin sees McDonald's doing the most PR-wise today to tout its new salads and other healthier offerings. Mike Donahue, VP, US communications and customer satisfaction for McDonald's, notes that PR pioneered McDonald's integrated marketing push on its salads. The company aligned its salads with Paul Newman's Newman's Own brand of salad dressings, offering those dressings for its new product. Newman's Own is highly regarded in the world of natural and organic foods. The company donates its profits to charitable and educational causes, giving more than $150 million since 1982. "We felt the social responsibility connection would be impactful," says Donahue. McDonald's launched its salads in March with a New York press event featuring Newman. PR from that sent salad sales up 15% even before advertising started, Donahue says. "There was real credibility with Newman," he recalls. Help from a third party As the king of fast food, McDonald's also knows it's the easiest mark for any group looking for targets in the obesity battle. "The media and activist groups will do whatever they can to stereotype our products in a negative light," Donahue says. Finding third parties to give credibility to McDonald's new healthy offerings can counter such negative stereotypes. "The more people that are educated by third parties about McDonald's, the better we will do," says Donahue. McDonald's has been testing a healthy adult meal in Indianapolis endorsed by Bob Greene, Oprah Winfrey's personal trainer - another well-respected third party who can lend credibility to its new push into healthy offerings. McDonald's can change its menu in response to consumer needs for healthier products just as years ago it changed its packaging and waste-handling methods in response to environ- mental concerns, Donahue contends. Using third-party endorsers helped validate McDonald's work in recycling, setting the pattern it is using in PR today for healthier menu choices. Subway had an endorser almost literally fall into its lap when the now-famous Jared Fogle wrote to tell how he'd lost 235 pounds eating Subway sandwiches and exercising more in 1998 and 1999. Jared became Subway's lead spokesperson. Subway today continues to talk about real people who have addressed obesity concerns with its sandwiches, notes Kevin Kane, Subway's PR manager. "I think because there's real people involved, that's really striking a chord," he says. Subway's latest weight-loss poster children are the Smith twins - Herman and Sherman - a 23-year-old New Orleans duo who between them lost 215 pounds in seven months. Subway also has changed its kids meals offerings, substituting juice for soft drinks and fruit roll-ups for cookies. It now has a PR program which involves Jared talking to schoolchildren about being overweight. Herman and Sherman are making appearances for the American Heart Walk, a fitness event Subway sponsors. Since all three were overweight as children, they can address kids' concerns about obesity, Kane notes. "It's not where you go in there and pound away about Subway. It's subtle marketing and PR," he says. Subtlety is what fast-food chains need if they don't want to paint themselves as the bad guys in the obesity debate, notes Gene Grabowski, a VP at Washington-based Levick Strategic Communications and former communications VP for the Grocery Manufacturers of America. "The restaurants are very aware that if they make too much noise about this it will seem like they were wrong before," Grabowski says. "The food and restaurant industry is making wider choices available, but is being very subtle about it." Food Beat's Fox says that may be because most Americans aren't ready to make restaurant choices simply on the health issue. She advises that for fast- food PR, "the message is, 'This tastes great and, oh by the way, this is good for you too.' Good for me - consumers may embrace that intellectually, but not from a behavior standpoint." While it's hard for a company the size of McDonald's to be subtle, it has launched one major PR effort to subtly get the message about nutrition and healthy choices to consumers. Late last year, it debuted a website on the topic of nutrition that lets consumers create their own McDonald's meal and see nutritional details for what they've chosen. Donahue says the site has been the most successful the company has ever launched, garnering 200,000-250,000 hits a month. "At the end of the day, the consumer makes the decision," says Donahue. Bigger isn't always better That may be true, but the next PR challenge McDonald's and others face is convincing consumers not only that they have healthier offerings, but also that bigger isn't necessarily better. Fast-food outlets have conditioned people to expect super sizes for relatively little extra cost. As a result, "a lot of us have lost focus on what is the proper portion size," says Fox. Technomic's Goldin agrees, saying, "One of the things the fast-food industry needs to do to address this obesity issue is smaller portions, but how will consumers respond?" Burger King, for example, has been touting a new chicken baguette sandwich line that appears much larger in posters and other marketing materials than the sandwiches actually are. That could backfire with consumers. Goldin sees the portion size issue as a difficult one. "I think it will be gradual," he says of consumer acceptance. Grabowski also thinks the portion issue could be a difficult sell. He expects to see more modestly sized portions added to quick-serve menus, but also looks for some consumer backlash. The key, he thinks, is to continue offering larger portions as well. "As long as you give consumers options, they will be satisfied," he says. "The message is choice." McDonald's agrees, offering salads at one end of the spectrum and its new McGriddle cakes at the other. "We believe there's room for both ends of the continuum," says Donahue. McDonald's and its competitors will continue to focus on that message, hoping it resonates not so much with critics of fast food as with consumers who may simply want to feel better about what they're ordering at the drive-through windows of the US' fast-food emporiums.

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