McDonald’s, Pink Slime, and Absolute Transparency

McDonald’s has been doing some excellent marketing in recent years. It’s clear that the company understands the digital world and the need to operate more openly and transparently. Its excellent Our Food, Your Questions campaign is evidence of how much the company is changing. First launched in Canada, this is now one of my all time favourite social media campaigns. Its brilliance lies in its simplicity, coupled with good, but no overcooked, execution.

The elephant in the McDonald’s board room is that almost everybody has an opinion, however ill-informed, about McDonald’s. And many of these opinions are based on myth and hearsay, not in the realities of a fast-evolving, modern restaurant chain. These viewpoints have proved to be remarkably sticky, often causing long-term damage to the brand by giving many potential customers fair reason not to visit a McDonald’s restaurant. But how do you take on the task of changing such deeply-entrenched attitudes?

The answer for McDonald’s lay in starting from a simple, inarguable insight: people love asking provocative questions and getting honest answers.

To serve this insight, McDonald’s launched a marketing campaign called “Your Questions, Our Answers” and agreed to answer any question asked about its food. And I mean any question, including gems such as “Is it true there is pink slime in your burgers?” and “How is it that a McDonald’s burger doesn’t rot?”

McDonald's Burger Does not rot

McDonald’s has committed to answering every relevant question, no matter how bizarre or pointed. Inevitably, the invitation has  drawn questions from all quarters, and in answering them McDonald’s has both identified and addressed some of the biggest purchase blockers for consumers. The user-generated questions also allowed it to quickly build a rich FAQ library, which it cleverly presents to customers not as a text-heavy list of questions and answers but as a visual card-based stream of images, videos and words.

Over 10,000 questions have been answered and all are searchable on the campaign microsite. Importantly, the answers come from regular employees of McDonald’s and its supply partners, and all offer remarkable insights into the workings of the company including this explanation from inside a chicken processing plant:

Or this absolute transparency video of a McDonald’s executive chef showing exactly what goes into the “secret” sauce used in Big Macs:

The most important thing about this campaign is that you cannot help but feel differently towards the McDonald’s brand after being exposed to its contents. Even someone who feels vehemently opposed to its restaurants has to grudgingly accept that the company is clearly working hard to address customer concerns and maybe, just maybe, is not quite as bad as they previously thought.

But the cleverest bit of all is that McDonald’s Canada has featured some of the best customer questions in advertising to recruit more people to their site. Faced with a targeted online display ad that asks “Is your meat made of cardboard?” alongside the McDonald’s logo, few people are able to resist clicking to reveal the answer. The ads have been so successful McDonald’s has reported click rates in excess of 90%, a mind-blowing result against online norms of well below 0.1%.

And the ultimate proof of the, er, McFlurry: the number of people agreeing that ‘McDonald’s is a company I trust’ has risen sharply, and the top three statements that measure attitudes to food quality are all up by at least 40%. Proof positive that transparency and openness are powerful ingredients for any company looking to create a strong, resilient brand.

The Canadian campaign has been extended into Australia and the USA. Let’s hope other developed markets also follow this lead soon.

Interestingly, McDonald’s has also created over 14,500 Facebook Pages, one for every US restaurant, empowering its customer-facing staff to extend this openness and transparency into their local communities. The company is working hard to address age-old perceptions and brilliantly using the social web to get their answers to the masses. One to keep watching with interest…