‘You can’t communicate yourself out of shit’ warns McDonald’s marketing VP

Brands must act first to make improvements to their business rather than shouting about what they plan to do in order to be seen as a trustworthy business with integrity, says Emily Somers, vice-president of marketing at McDonald’s.


While it’s important to keep customers informed, McDonald’s vice-president of marketing Emily Somers believes in times of difficulty brands must make any necessary changes to their business before trying to communicate with consumers.

“Act first and then talk about it. You can’t communicate yourself out of shit,” she said at Mumsnet’s Mumstock conference yesterday (26 April).

Somers believes McDonald’s became the “poster child for everything going wrong in the world” a decade ago, some of which she admits was fair.

“McDonald’s came to the UK in 1974. America was the most exciting thing in the world. Fast food was the best thing ever. [McDonald’s] grew within the UK, people loved it and there was nothing that stopped that joy of growth. And then all of a sudden things fell off a cliff. So either you take a good long hard look at yourself and realise what you need to do to change or you continue to fall off that cliff,” she explained.

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Rather than bow to the pressure, the brand listened to critics and adapted its business and offer in order to meet changing consumer demands.

Instead of shouting about its efforts immediately though, Somers said it was important to re-engage customers on the ground first.

“We took a moment to stop and listen to our critics and to re-engage with stakeholders, but crucially we looked at our business and how to fix our fundamentals.”

McDonald’s reformulated its menus to take out fat, salt and sugar and changed Happy Meals to include fresh fruit. It also redesigned its outlets, and is continuing to make improvements.

Act first, talk later

“We didn’t do any communication [at that time]. We didn’t go out and do anything publicly for quite some time because we felt we needed to act first and talk later.”

Following the changes, one of the first things the brand did, which Somers describes as “revolutionary”, was to set up a website allowing consumers to ask McDonald’s anything they wanted to get an honest answer to.

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“It didn’t get millions and millions of people doing so but the very fact of doing it spoke volumes,” she said.

As a result of the changes made and the marketing plan implemented at the time, as well as the leadership of CEO Steve Easterbrook, Somers said consumers’ trust in the brand is recovering.

“We are a family brand; we’ve always been a family brand,” she said. “After 43 years of being here in the UK trust is the highest it has ever been among families.”

She said it is a continuous drive now to keep trust high and to build on the conversation.

“The job is never ever done. Trust is fluid and different things may matter at different times. But the moment you stop talking about something that may be of concern is the moment [consumers] forget the good things.”