Alistair Macrow, McDonald’s UK vice-president of food and marketing, talks to MaryLou Costa about continuing the fast food giant’s momentum after several years of change.
Marketing Week (MW)/ Your recent A to Z campaign focuses on McDonald’s social, environmental and ethical policies instead of any particular food product. Why shift this messaging and will this be ongoing?
Alistair Macrow (AM): It’s the first time we’ve gone beyond talking about food in our messaging, but about 70% of the material in it relates to food. Our customers tell us that if the food’s not right, nothing else really matters. We need to make them feel comfortable about what they’re eating. We are now at the point where it is right to add to our core food product messages.
MW: You will be introducing calorie information to menu boards and fish products are now sustainable. Will we see increased messaging around these moves?
AM: There are still a lot of stories that we haven’t told. Many of these aren’t new stories, it just hasn’t been the right time to tell them – you can’t tell people the same thing too many times. We have been turning our used cooking oil into biodiesel for our trucks for a few years, yet the majority of the population don’t know about it.
MW: Do you think customers will find the calorie menu boards useful or a deterrent to certain products?
AM: As part of our responsibility deal, we have had calorie counts on our packaging and website for a while. Some customers are saying this is what they want. We have tried it in 125 restaurants and from the evidence we had in the test, this should be well received.
MW: You have gradually introduced more healthy options, such as salads and wraps. Are there plans to improve the nutritional value of your burgers?
AM: We continually revisit the formulation of our food. In the past five years, our average Happy Meal has reduced in salt by 40%, fat by 28% and sugar by 21% – done so it still tastes good, and in steps.
We are now testing a new fizzy drink for children that is one of their five a day and has no artificial additives. It requires restaurants to have new equipment so it’s not something we can switch on overnight. But the early signs are good.
MW: The relationship McDonald’s has with education, such as it being an awarding body for its courses, has attracted a lot of attention. Do you think other brands could create similar links to education?
AM: The better staff are able to serve customers then the better their impression of the brand, so it makes sense for us to train people in the right way and make them feel good about working for us. I’d be surprised if other businesses didn’t start to see this as a way to help both their employees and themselves.
MW: These moves must require a significant investment. Is it paying off?
AM: Our evidence from talking to customers is that trust in our brand is higher than ever – last year we reached a point where more people trusted us than didn’t, which is important.
MW: Your launch of wraps to the Deli Choices range was accompanied by a roadshow. What made you turn to experiential marketing?
AM: We wanted to do something different. It’s not difficult but requires thinking differently. The concept is “it’s too good to put down” and the TV work shows people doing things one handed, such as playing basketball, so we thought we could bring that into the roadshow, and encourage the public to share their videos on YouTube.
MW: There is also a social media element to the campaign. Is this something you are featuring more often?
AM: We use digital to enhance our existing strategies. It worked well in our annual Monopoly promotion, where we used geo-location services to allow customers who had won prizes to tell their friends about it. In the past, people doubted whether anyone ever won so this increases the promotion’s credibility.
We also do things that allow people to show their love for certain products – we have an area on Facebook called Flavahood, and had a McFlurry Scurry game that gave participants the chance of winning a voucher. A real McFlurry van now visits festivals, which rewards people who check into the festival on Facebook with a McFlurry voucher. It’s about making the brand accessible and fun without pushing things at people.
MW: What’s your view on the success of brands’ activities on Facebook?
AM: There’s a lot more to customer loyalty than people saying they are a fan of your brand on Facebook. It’s not a bad thing but I don’t think this is what cracks customer loyalty. Facebook is one of many places where we would like our customers to engage with us, but success does not start or finish with Facebook as some people would have you believe.
MW: How will you continue to stay ahead of your competitors?
AM: The investments we have made in our restaurant interiors have set us up well to compete with all manner of businesses on the high street. Take how we’ve been able to transform perceptions of our coffee. We now sell about 125,000 cups a day and can compete with anybody in that space. Some of our competitors haven’t invested in their trust message or in their restaurant environment and that makes it more difficult for them to be in a broader market.
MW: How will you be maximising your status as an official sponsor of the London 2012 Olympics?
AM: We’ll be offering good quality, British food to the millions of visitors coming to the Olympics and to the athletes and press. The more innovative part is that for the first time there is a sponsor for the volunteers and that is us. We bring in our expertise to help attract, recruit, train and develop the 70,000 volunteers.
We’ve already started opening up our farms and inviting members of the Olympic family, [which includes the national and international Olympics committees], journalists, stakeholders and our crew to come and see where the food is coming from.
MW: What do you think of brands that use ’ambush marketing’ techniques?
AM: It’s one of the event owner’s tasks to protect those of us that have invested in the sponsorship properties. It’s a common practice, but I would rather us concentrate on making sure that we do a better job than anyone else. This will ensure that our message is still the most resonant.
McDonald’s – the real story
McDonald’s has achieved a significant turnaround since it was in the media spotlight in the late Nineties following allegations of poor ethical and environmental practices. The brand has also fought against its image of pushing unhealthy food at the unwitting masses, especially children. The company was also criticised for offering its employees dead-end ’McJobs’.
Since then, however, the chain has made a number of changes to its internal processes. In 2006, the brand began challenging the ’McJob’ concept by highlighting the growing number of accredited qualifications its employees can gain. From 2007, McDonald’s began introducing new ingredients such as organic milk, free range eggs and Rainforest Alliance-certified coffee. It has thrown its social and environmental behaviour open in its latest advertising campaign, which runs through an A to Z to highlight positive activity.
The actions are having a positive effect, with McDonald’s first-quarter global results this year showing profits up 11% from a year ago to £730m and revenues up 9% to £3.8bn.
McDonald’s real-time reader responses
What is McDonald’s view of location-based campaigns? What’s working? What issues are to be overcome?
Alistair Macrow (AM): One of the things we are testing is delivering McDonald’s vouchers to people who have signed up when they are close to a restaurant. That is an example of where we are extending an existing strategy by making the most of digital. We have been offering vouchers through distribution methods such as bus tickets. Location-based services can move this strategy forward because not only are you able to reach people in the right place but people who are interested.
As with all technology, the issue is using it because it’s right for you and your strategy as opposed to because it’s new and shiny. The key aspect for marketers is understanding how your strategy can be enhanced by using a particular technology.
McDonald’s UK has taken the lead in moving away from targeting kids direct – can you see McDonald’s being a champion of responsible marketing?
AM: There is a real role we can play within responsible marketing, and at the moment 40% of all our advertising for kids is about healthy items such as fruit, fruit juice, vegetables and water. We know that kids respond to us when we talk to them and mums are happy for us to talk to them in this way. Last summer we were offering Shrek-branded milk and carrot sticks, while this year we have similar offers for Kung Fu Panda.
Why isn’t McDonald’s involved in motorsport sponsorship? It is great for engagement and conversations with audiences.
AM: Our sports sponsorship is important, but we choose to invest in two areas – the Olympics and, in the UK specifically, community football. We have sponsored the development of more than 20,000 coaches for young kids. Hundreds of our restaurants are twinned to local football clubs. This is improving the football experience in our local communities and the lives of the people who come to our restaurants. As opposed to putting money into a big event, this is something that feels true to our brand.