Reputation check: McDonald's returns to its roots

The company is turning its attention back to burgers as UK profits dip, reports Ravi Chandiramani

As TV chef Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall has disdainfully put it, McDonald’s is to many a ‘huge ugly lump of global corporate muscle’. It is the ultimate pariah of the anti-globalisation movement.

The explosive growth of the golden arches was checked in this decade as fast-food chains became identified as prime culprits in fuelling the obesity epidemic among children. Books such as Eric Schlosser’s Fast Food Nation and films such as Morgan Spurlock’s Super Size Me have served to popularise McDonald’s-bashing.

The company has famously sought to appease its critics by introducing salad and fresh fruit, cutting salt content and providing detailed nutritional information. However, the healthier options have contributed little to profits.

UK cutback
McDonald’s sluggish performance in Britain has been reflected by the announcement that 25 UK branches will shut. But McDonald’s, the resoundingly successful but constantly under-fire business that it is, has a plan. This month it returns its attention unabashedly to burgers. A ‘Bigger Big Mac’ heads a line-up of products that will ‘give a twist on existing burgers’.

Under UK CEO Steve Easterbrook – who last week took on Schlosser in a Newsnight debate – McDonald’s is
also updating the look of its 1,225 UK restaurants with softer lighting and modern furniture. And as an employer of 67,000 UK workers, with flexible working practices, the firm prides itself on its contribution to wealth creation.
But its enemies are  not sated. A Fast Food Nation movie is to be released later this year, while a sequel to

Schlosser’s book aims to inform kids about fast-food companies’ practices.

The corporate consultant view
Stephen Doherty, corporate chief at Cohn & Wolfe, leads its Starbucks corporate account:
‘I’ve never seen a reputation tracker for food companies that didn’t have McDonald’s ranking near, or at, the bottom. Climbing out of a hole that deep and longstanding requires a Herculean effort.

‘The fundamental challenge lies in the demonisation of its core products over the past five years. You can spend millions on CSR and community work, but that counts for very little if burgers and fries remain “evil” in the eyes of the public.

‘McDonald’s has contributed to that situation via its corporate body language. The apparent effort and money behind its nutritional programme, and the public hairshirt it has donned in the obesity debate, were in many ways a validation that there is indeed something illicit about its core products. I think it’s time to stop apologising. Burgers taste good – fact. Fries are magic – fact. People really enjoy Big Macs and McChicken sandwiches. And you know what? That’s a good thing.

‘So, I’d dial down the humility, because people will only start to believe that view when it is clear that McDonald’s does.’

The burger industry view
Kai Boschmann, former international comms director at Burger King, is now group director of corporate affairs at DSG International:

‘The fast-food industry has faced a multitude of crises over the past decade, and it continues to be deeply involved in the evolving health debate.

‘Businesses need to focus on far-reaching and integrated reputation building – the era of hard sales and pure marketing has passed, and it is increasingly difficult for global brands to flourish on marketing alone. The fast-food industry often gets criticised, and that may be because its emphasis remains marketing-led. With greater focus on responsibility, transparency and dialogue, the industry will gain more goodwill.

‘After all, there are numerous reputation milestones to shout about: a huge creator of employment, flexible working hours, franchising opportunities, and millions given to sustainable good causes. McDonald’s recent announcement of the “global mum panel” appears to be a good initiative, for instance. Times change, but if McDonald’s continues to listen meaningfully to stakeholders, and adapts, it will continue to thrive.’

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