How McDonald’s fell from employer hero to zero

Congratulations to McDonald’s which has managed to keep costs down and flexibility up by putting most of its staff on ‘zero-hour’ contracts. The contracts, widely condemned by unions and politicians, essentially involve an employee committing to an employer without getting any commitment in return. No long term contract, no guarantee of regular work and no standard hours or stability of income.

Mark Ritson

According to Andy Sawford, the Labour MP who has campaigned to abolish zero-hour contracts in the UK, “There will be some employees working 20 to 30 hours a week, week in week out, and it is indefensible [for McDonald’s] not to put those people on contracts”. A McDonald’s spokeswoman told The Guardian that, “Many of our employees are parents or students who are looking to fit flexible, paid work around childcare, study and other commitments”.

How considerate. Given that almost 83,000 of its 93,000 British employees are on zero-hour contracts and how wonderfully flexible they are, I wonder how many of McDonald’s senior management team have opted for one?

What makes McDonald’s zero-hour contracts especially galling is the contradiction between the company’s stated philosophy and its actual approach. The company has long been held up as a leading exponent of employer branding. It surveyed more than 10,000 employees from 55 countries a few years back and then created an employee value proposition that centred on three key themes: Family and Friends, Flexibility and Future.

As a branding expert I’d like to point out that whenever a company comes up with a positioning in which all the values start with the same letter, or when the first letter of each value spells out some inane phrase like ‘SPIRIT’ or ‘WINNERS’, it’s usually a sign that the brand strategy in question is ‘CRAP’. I could also suggest another two-word phrase beginning with ‘F’ that McDonald’s employer branding team could add to complete their EVP.

If you are building an employer brand that is meant to make people feel like a family and allows them to focus on the future it would make sense, surely, to offer your people a proper contract. You know, the kind that McDonald’s senior management and HR team enjoy.

Before I get any more polite hate mail from the lost souls in employer branding, it isn’t just the employer side of the branding equation that is open to criticisms of inconsistency and hypocrisy. If you look carefully enough you’ll find a weekly barrage of examples out there of corporate brand positioning being exposed and embarrassed by corporate behaviours of the most egregious and inconsistent kind too.

If I had more column inches I could talk about HSBC, or the Co-operative Bank or a host of other brands that I would argue have not just deviated recently from their stated values but done a 180-degree turn and accelerated back up the road in the opposite direction from where their branding compass was telling them to go.

BP once claimed ‘performance’ and ‘green’ as core brand values and then, as everybody knows, went on to fail and cause the greatest environmental catastrophe of modern times. Less well known is the fact that BP then came up with a new set of core values that removed the reference to ‘green’ (smart work) and replaced it with new ones like ‘respect’, ‘excellence’ and ‘courage’.

There is a word in the marketing lexicon for this kind of branding. We call it ‘aspirational’. For non-marketers it’s another way of saying “a massive load of old balls that nobody takes seriously”. It’s like me telling a date over the phone that I look like Brad Pitt and when she turns up and looks disappointed I explain that I was being ‘aspirational’ and would she like a quick pint before we go back to her place.

Let’s be honest for a moment. Most corporate branding is a massive swindle. Some nob from an ad agency crosses the threshold and picks up half a million quid a year to come up with four or five worthless cliché-ridden values and business continues as usual. We expect our frontline employees, the ones on zero-hour contracts, to ‘live the brand’ for eight hours a day but no one, not even the most aspirational marketer, believes that the chief executive or any of his C-suite mates give even the faintest fuck about any of it.

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