McDonald's is going to great lengths to emphasize a new message surrounding its menu offerings.
Last year, Heather Oldani, director of US communications at McDonald's, was in a cab when she and the driver started talking about hamburgers.
"Don't you guys put sawdust in those burgers?" the driver asked.
For most McDonald's employees, this type of situation and conversation is not that rare of an occurrence - Oldani says it happens everywhere from cocktail parties to family gatherings. And while things are going rather well for the world's largest restaurant company - its stock hit an all-time high in early September, and its breakfast items, drinks, and chipotle chicken wraps are seeing strong sales - these misperceptions do raise a certain level of concern.
"You get so used to being here, and we all know the [McDonald's] quality story," Oldani says. "But when you hear that coming from someone, you think to yourself: What exactly is the perception that's out there?"
And just to clear things up, Oldani says McDonald's only adds salt and pepper to its beef patties, not sawdust.
"As we move forward, quality has really become a priority for all of us," says Molly Starmann, director of McDonald's US marketing. "It always has been, but going by what we're hearing from consumers, awareness is a little bit low about quality across the board. And that's a story we need to do a better job of telling [to] our customers."
And the company is looking internally and externally for brand ambassadors to tell those stories.
The efforts to create brand ambassadors from within have taken shape in the form of a major internal communications program, set to roll out in early 2008. The McDonald's Brand Advocate (MBA) program, created with the help of GolinHarris, is an interactive online program intended to educate and arm McDonald's employees and owner/operators with facts and figures about key topics, including food quality, nutrition, and safety. Its ultimate goal is to help employees more effectively communicate specific messages about the McDonald's story in their day-to-day work and lives.
Molly McKenna, manager of US communications and lead on the program, says it's currently being tested with owner/operators and some company employees working in the supply chain and marketing team. She hopes to eventually extend the program to suppliers and agency partners, but says it's too early to tell if it will be used on a global scale.
The program, which takes about 20 minutes to complete, can be accessed from any Internet browser and features quizzes and real-life scenarios demonstrating ways in which employees can communicate the McDonald's story in their everyday lives. There's a final quiz testing the employee's overall knowledge and retention of the information. Employees receive a certificate if they pass the quiz.
"All of us here often get questions from people about things that aren't true, and this gives them the ability to practice these real-life situations," McKenna says.
The MBA program provides key facts and messages on chicken - McDonald's uses US Department of Agriculture-inspected white meat from leading suppliers like Tyson - and beef - there are no additives and no fillers.
One of the real-life scenarios puts participants at a family/friend's barbecue where, when someone hears that the employee works for McDonald's, that person asks a question or makes a statement about McDonald's that is a myth. The module then asks the employee what to do.
"Instead of just using traditional mediums to speak to consumers, we want to arm our employees with this information because word of mouth is so powerful," McKenna says.
On the external front, McDonald's in early June launched the Moms' Quality Correspondents campaign, which has given six moms unprecedented access to McDonald's via interactions with the company, executives, and vendors. The moms later blog and post videos about those interactions. Oldani says letting the moms go behind the scenes to see the McDonald's quality story brings a higher level of credibility to the company's quality claims.
"We're really confident about our quality story and felt in order for others to believe in it we had to do something that wasn't coming from the corporation," she says. "The word-of-mouth piece is really critical for PR efforts moving forward, and we felt if moms were out there speaking to their communities and online communities unedited, it would get us far more credibility than just posting an article or doing Web site copy."
Oldani and Starmann expect - and want- the moms to be critical and continually ask questions. The moms have made three trips: the global headquarters in Oak Brook, IL; Lopez Foods, a McDonald's beef supplier in Oklahoma City; and its apple supply chain in New York and New Jersey.
Quality perception around core products like hamburgers is "not where we want it to be," Oldani says. And the program is helping to clear up some of those misperceptions - "Hey, moms across America - it's really 100% beef!" read one of the moms' blog postings after visiting Lopez Foods.
McDonald's has also started running "quality and children's well-being spots" on CNN's Accent- Health, a TV network available in nearly 8,000 doctors' offices that provides preventive healthcare information. The company has started targeting doctors with its quality story, as well.
"The quality initiative has more than one face," Starmann says, "and we are going to be talking to everybody."
Samples of recent blog postings from the Mom Correspondents
Gilda McHenry, Downingtown, PA, on working behind the counter of a McDonald's restaurant:
"What we mothers witnessed at Oak Brook and again in Oklahoma is the ideal. Whether the McDonald's that I frequent matches those ideals is a matter of chance. But at least I know how things are supposed to be run."
Joanna Canizares, Miami, after visiting Lopez Foods, a beef supplier for McDonald's:
"While I was a bit dismayed at the fat content (approximately 20%), I am pleased to see that my son's hamburger started out as a side of beef just like I would purchase in a supermarket, that it came from a cow raised and cared for in a responsible, humane manner, and that the beef passed multiple quality and safety inspection processes to ensure it was both safe and nutritious."
Tina Hoxie, Mulliken, MI, after visiting McDonald's apple producer and supplier:
"Every effort is made to keep the apples as fresh and appealing as possible from the time the fruit is picked to the time it is packed and processed. The apples undergo several stages of cleansing in chlorinated water and rinsing to ensure food safety."