Inside McDonald's new approach to communications

The fast-food giant has revamped its agency roster and in-house comms team.

Inside McDonald's new approach to communications

OAK BROOK, IL: McDonald’s has reorganized its global PR agency roster, assigning its three main areas of storytelling—food, experience, and people—to Golin, WE Communications, and Purple Strategies, respectively.

Longtime agency partner Golin, which has worked with the company since 1956, was previously the go-to firm for all three focus areas. However, the fast-food giant decided to take a new approach to modernize its communications, said Jano Cabrera, SVP of corporate relations at McDonald’s.

"As McDonald’s modernizes, it should take a more modern approach to how it communicates," said Cabrera. "That means having not just one agency partner, but having several and really empowering them to have a sharp area of focus, because the best storytellers are the ones who know their story inside and out."

McDonald’s selected Golin to handle food comms, WE for experience, and Purple Strategies to manage what Cabrera called "the people story," which spotlights what McDonald’s does to expand educational opportunities for its employees. Following RFPs last year, Purple and WE began working with McDonald’s in these capacities in January. Purple previously worked with the chain on other areas of its business.

McDonald’s did not disclose budget information, but Cabrera said most of its communications is food-related.

Focus on the story
The "food story" Golin is telling is focused on the "positive changes" McDonald’s is making on its menu, such as removing high-fructose corn syrup, shifting to cage-free hens, and removing artificial preservatives, colors, and flavors, Cabrera explained.

"There are so many conversations that have to take place to understand and put these things into perspective," he said. "When you have this level of rich detail, you are best served by having a track of responsibility where you can really focus and go deep."

With Golin handling communications for the brand at large, Cabrera said McDonald’s risked losing some of the "subject matter expert aspect" of storytelling. When he explained his new agency structure strategy to Golin, the Interpublic Group agency immediately agreed to try it, said Cabrera, who added that the chain’s relationship with the firm is "as strong, if not stronger, than it has never been."

"It is not by mistake or coincidence that Golin, the agency that knows us best, is the agency with one of the most important charges, and that is communicating our comprehensive food story," he said.

Golin co-CEO Gary Rudnick noted that his firm was founded more than six decades ago with McDonald’s as its first client.

"While McDonald’s has always used multiple agencies, to this day it remains a large and very important account for Golin," Rudnick said, via email. "It’s the ‘special sauce’ that fuels Golin to innovate for this brand every single day."

WE is working on the "experience story," which is focused on McDonald’s $10 billion investment to modernize its 14,000 restaurants in the U.S. by 2020. The account is run by Tiffany Cook, WE’s consumer sector president, based in Seattle.

"In terms of experience, the restaurants themselves are being modernized, kiosks are being brought in, there’s mobile order pay, McDelivery—all of these come with different stories," said Cabrera.

WE is helping McDonald’s tell its modernization story at a local level through the narrative of "building a better McDonald’s," he added.

"Modernization is such an abstract thing until it’s your McDonald’s in your neighborhood," Cabrera said. "To understand that it has a more modern experience might make you curious."

Alyssa Garnick, New York MD at WE, said her firm’s assignment goes beyond promoting McDonald’s technologies.

"The question is not, ‘Do you have tech?’ It’s, ‘How does it translate to help your consumers, enhance their experience with the brand, further enable their access to yummy food, and benefit their connection to their own lives and families?’" she explained.

Purple Strategies is working on McDonald’s "people story." The company is focusing on this area because consumers look at companies through two lenses: the products and services they provide and what they do to make the world a better place, Cabrera said.

"We want to shine the spotlight on how we help [staffers] expand their education opportunities, and on the skills that they learn at McDonald’s," he added.

A representative from Purple Strategies was not immediately available for comment.

While Golin, WE, and Purple Strategies work on the main areas of McDonald’s business, the brand collaborates with other PR agencies on a project basis. Cabrera said all agency partners work to co-create with McDonald’s, generate earned media, and drive social buzz.

McDonald’s reported net income of $698.7 million in the fourth quarter of last year, down from $1.2 billion the year prior. Its revenue was $5.3 billion in the period, a decrease from the $6 billion posted the year before. Both its earnings and sales numbers beat expectations, according to MarketWatch. It also posted its best same-store sales growth in six years in Q4, according to CNBC.

Cabrera has also changed the structure of McDonald’s in-house communications group, which he described as previously a "team of generalists," into a group with specific subject matter experts. There have been no recent senior executive changes on the communications team, he added.

"In the same way we are asking our agencies to go deeper and better understand the areas of focus in which they are charged, we have changed the structure internally so that we allow our employees to develop that same subject matter expertise," Cabrera said. "Journalists should be connected with someone who can tell them McDonald’s food, people, or experience story to the depth that they deserve."

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