‘At the end of the day, let’s not pretend we are something we are not’

Nick Hindle, vice president of communications for McDonald’s UK and Northern Europe, tells Branwell Johnson about why the company is an appropriate sponsor of the Olympics – and how is has changed in recent years without losing its identity.

Nick Hindle

Marketing Week (MW): Why is McDonald’s sponsoring the Olympics?

Nick Hindle (NH): What McDonald’s wants to get out of the Olympics is what we try to get out of the brand day in and day out in this country – we want the people we serve to have an enjoyable and affordable experience. We also want to create an opportunity for our own employees.

We are a part of the Olympics workforce and food provider. We are operating four restaurants – two behind the scenes and two in the Olympic Park. Over the course of the games we have about 2,000 people running those restaurants. It’s a massive challenge for us and we can showcase the ‘best of the best’.

We have a number of programmes. At each Olympics [McDonald’s is an International Olympic Committee partner], we have an internal programme all about our Olympic Champion Crew. We find our best people, they work at the games and take a lot of pride in it. About 1,800 of the crew will come from the UK and are being selected from every restaurant in the UK. They come and stay in a great hotel and get to experience the Olympic Park.

MW: What legacy does McDonald’s hope to achieve from its London 2012 involvement?

NH: For the first time we are also a Presenting Partner of the volunteer programme and our role has been to support the London Organising Committee of the Olympic Games in recruiting ‘Games Makers’ and in the training and development of those volunteers. One thing we are good at is recruiting a lot of people quickly for a hospitality programme. It gives us a chance to talk to people about our training and development and we have created a [customer service] qualification that will be a legacy for the UK tourism industry, accredited by City & Guilds. For some people it will be a route back to work and we will offer people who gain the qualification a job interview.

We are also doing something for our younger customers. We developed a programme focused on football called Player Escort and we are taking that idea to create special moments for younger customers during the Olympics as well. We’ve developed a campaign called the Great McDonald’s Mascotathon and the toys with Happy Meals at the moment are all about physical activity. We are encouraging kids to play actively in a fun way.

MW: How do you address the criticism from some quarters that McDonald’s is not an appropriate partner for the Olympics?

NH: It comes down to [the question]: ‘Is a burger restaurant an appropriate sponsor for the Olympics?’ We say yes, because of the care and attention that goes into preparing our food. That’s why it’s important to take people to see the farmers. The recent ads [the That’s What Makes McDonald’s campaign, focusing on British farmers] have been telling our story and we are not over-egging our role in catering for the games. We are only part of the catering offer; there are lots of other food options. We serve probably one in 10 meals. We’re also explaining why we are an important partner to the games. The reality is that major supporting events these days don’t happen without sponsorship and we are one of the few businesses that is global in nature, a consumer-facing brand and is able to have a long-term commitment to the Olympic movement.

MW: Is managing your reputation harder in the age of social media?

NH: The simple answer is yes. We don’t yet fully understand social media but not a week goes by when we don’t learn a little more about how to use it effectively. For us it is full of opportunity and risk and we focused initially on managing the risk and listening – in coming months we’ll focus more on the opportunities. We are targeted by social media campaigns that have no basis in reality whatsoever, such as the rumour we were going to stop serving under-18s – for these kind of things we make a calculated judgement on what to say and when to say it; if you’re not careful the interaction draws more attention.

MW: Twitter now has 10 million users in the UK – what’s McDonald’s approach to the channel?

NH: We do not have a Twitter account in the UK though in my mind the question is when, not if. We will be really clear about why we want to use Twitter and what our story is when we do launch. My own view is that Twitter is a very personal channel and a company has to think very carefully how it can operate on there. I think it’s better when companies involve individual employees, eg operating as Nick@McDonald’s, but you have to think about your team’s working processes – it’s no good being on Twitter 9am to 5pm when people are at work. There is a big customer service element to using it and when we do launch Twitter there will be a communications element and customer service.

PR 3: Hindle’s 3 Big Challenges

1. We must be careful not to overcommunicate. For quite a simple business there are many things we can talk about, so we must avoid the trap of trying too many things because then your important message is lost.

2. We must remember we operate in a world where probably our most powerful communications asset is the 87,000 people that work for us. The challenge is to understand and harness that.

3. We are learning how to operate in a new digital world as an international business. It’s a massive challenge and the fact that we are now more comfortable with not being in control of our brand will help tackle that.

McDonald’s: The turnaround strategy

Marketing Week (MW): What was the situation with McDonald’s brand reputation when you joined the company?

Nick Hindle (NH): I joined in August 2002 just before the global results fell off a cliff. There was a cloud cast over us by the [prior] McLibel trial [where McDonald’s filed a lawsuit against environmentalists distributing leaflets criticising the company], but obesity had not really begun to be a serious issue for the food industry.

Over 2003/4, that situation worsened but it was symptomatic of a much bigger problem: we had lost touch with our customers. We had withdrawn from our best relationships in the UK, whether the media, the political community or others, and we had not invested in the restaurants enough – our service and experience were not good enough. At the same time there was an explosion in choice in our market with a lot of new brands coming in, such as the coffee shop expansion. There was so much choice and so much of that choice was new and shiny. We looked old and tired and had lost our mojo. Then obesity became such a big issue for this country and piled a huge amount of pressure on us.

MW: Did you want to fundamentally change the nature of the brand?

NH: We said we wanted to be a modern, progressive burger company and those four words are critically important. We wanted to modernise the brand, the offering and the environment and be a business that leads and takes action. But at the end of the day, McDonald’s is a burger brand and while we want to have the best offer on the menu, let’s not pretend we are something we are not.

MW: How has communications been used to support the turnaround strategy?

NH: People want to listen to people, not to companies. The [then] UK CEO Steve Easterbrook in this case became the key individual for going out and not only telling our story but also building relationships and listening to the outside world. At the time, [author] Eric Schlosser was out promoting Fast Food Nation and had never spoken to senior management in the UK. The Guardian serialised the book and we asked if we could place some ads in the paper to respond. They said no but that we could go into a right of reply column.

Easterbrook offered to meet Schlosser and that meeting, on TV’s Newsnight, created real momentum for us. It was a disruptive PR moment, with the audience engaged by a young British CEO going at it with Schlosser relating the facts. We went toe to toe, having exactly the opportunity we wanted. It was a big risk but other people felt it was a bigger risk than we did. We felt it was an opportunity to go out and communicate some of our own facts. We did the tough gigs but we [also] spent time listening to the BBC business desk and at a Guardian editorial meeting.

MW: How were employees engaged with the communications strategy?

NH: When your CEO goes out and does something in the media you must remember the power of that and the effect on your own employees and franchisees. Most of us are not leaders but followers and look to follow someone we believe in. We’re fortunate that the last CEO and the current one, Jill McDonald, are very inspiring.

MW: How important as part of your narrative was it to open up the food chain to scrutiny?

NH: Over the past few years, we have begun to understand that customers care about the provenance of their food as much as we do, so we have opened up the supply chain a lot and focused on the provenance story. We have to be careful not to get bored with the message before the customers do and take our foot off the pedal. From a trust perspective, we don’t just talk about food but how we behave as an employer – the impact we have on the environment and how we give back to the community. We recently introduced a Farm Forward training scheme for young farmers. Also some of our franchisees go through a training programme to get the confidence to talk to the media. They work with the regional communications team – 60% of our coverage in the UK is generated by brand ambassadors and is overwhelmingly positive.

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