Is McDonald's Really Becoming More Transparent?

In an increasingly ratings-based and knowledge-rich economy, the company could suffer if consumers don't believe its new campaign is built on honesty.
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In an increasingly ratings-based and knowledge-rich economy, the company could suffer if consumers don't believe its new campaign is built on honesty.
The Golden Arches. (Photo: skynet_04/Flickr)

The Golden Arches. (Photo: skynet_04/Flickr)

In the spring of 2012, McDonald's Canada launched a marketing campaign called "Our Food. Your Questions." The ongoing, ask-me-anything type experiment involves thousands of regular Canadians submitting their queries via social media—"Why is the food at McDonald's so cheap?," "How is it that a McDonald's burger does not rot?," "Is pink slime used in any of your chicken products?," and so on. Within a few hours to a few days, McDonald's posts a reply online, either with text or a behind-the-scenes video uploaded to YouTube. The intention: ending any and all misconceptions and tall tales pertaining to the grub served at the world's largest fast-food chain. Or, in other words, if McDonald's isn't willing to change its products, it's hoping to change how people feel about its products.

And it seems to be working. Canada's MarketingMagazinedeemed McDonald's Marketer of the Year in 2012, praising the company's bold decision to take an "open, honest kind of approach that can silence the harshest of critics, turn a fence-sitter into a fan or, if it backfires, risk alienating consumers unsatisfied with the answers." One video explaining why a Quarter Pounder With Cheese looks so different in advertisements compared to those in restaurants has received more than 10 million views. In late 2013, McDonald's commenced an identical campaign in both Australia and New Zealand. A few months later, the Financial Post, Canada's business newspaper, published an article titled "Road to Redemption: How McDonald’s’ Once Down-and-Out Brand Recaptured Hearts and Minds."

All of this, of course, is part of a bigger trend in the world of branding toward so-called transparency. Indeed, Google's Ngram Viewer, which compiles usage rates of specific words and phrases found in millions of books, shows that occurrences of the word transparency have increased by around 200 percent between the mid-1980s to mid-2000s. This spike might be largely due to more talk of how big-name brands (and governments) are attempting to rectify tarnished images in the face of public pressure. "The Internet is giving consumers a lot of power, and there aren't many secrets anymore," Glen Urban, a professor of marketing at the MIT Sloan School of Management, tells me. "If you look at the auto industry, for example, used cars used to be a haven for manipulation and consumer victimization, but when eBay started doing consumer ratings and guarantees and escrow payments, the used-car market cleaned up and became trustworthy. A lot of the used-car dealers on eBay are the same dealers that were untrustworthy before, but now they can't be because they'd get no business. If you don't have four or five stars, nobody's going to buy a used car from you."

"The Internet is giving consumers a lot of power, and there aren't many secrets anymore."

A recent documentary titled The Naked Brand, produced by the ad agency Questus, argues the same point. Since countless blogs, comment sections, and Twitter accounts provide an abundance of information, companies are having a harder time keeping their once-private dealings private. Today, ordinary citizens have more access to what's happening in the world than ever before, meaning corporations can either opt for transparency or crank up their opacity machines. One example of a company that's chosen the former route is outdoor clothing retailer Patagonia with its "Footprint Chronicles," a webpage that documents the company's global supply chain for all to see.

AS OF LAST MONTH, McDonald's brought the Canadian campaign to the United States to bolster the brand's credibility amidst slumping sales and an exodus of young people in search of fresher, healthier options. As stated in an official press release, the U.S. version features Grant Imahara, a "curious skeptic" and former co-host of Discovery Channel's MythBusters, who plans to "uncover real answers to tough questions by visiting McDonald’s suppliers and restaurants across the country." For some, Imahara's reputation as a professional dispeller of rumors is sure to convince, but a quick glimpse across the Web suggests that many see Imahara's latest role more as paid spokesperson than curious skeptic.

Clearly, there's an inherent gamble to starting a dialogue with the masses, when the masses don't believe that the dialogue is happening in good faith. The New Yorker, for example, has labeled the McDonald's campaign an infomercial for the Internet age. Mother Jones has used the opportunity to ask the Golden Arches when it's going to start paying its employees a living wage. (No answer.) Likewise, John Oliver's Last Week Tonight produced a short parody of the campaign involving a pedestrian who wonders why there's currently seven lawsuits alleging wage theft against the corporation and franchise operators.

The transparency gambit has its benefits, but if the public doesn't believe it, companies might be better off never having tried. "Once you do it, you'd better deliver," Urban says. "A trust buster is when you don't do what you said you're going to do. People don't forgive trust busters."

Naturally, though, not all companies involved in the push for transparency are truly transparent. "If brands were completely transparent, we'd live in a utopian society with no marketing, no advertising, no packaging, and no branding," wrote Questus co-founder Jeff Rosenblum, who also co-wrote and co-directed The Naked Brand. "What's really happening is that brands are translucent, meaning that consumers can see through most of our marketing and advertising efforts.... But there's still a role for marketing. Creativity is still at the core of great brands." Or as the Guardianput it: "true corporate transparency may be akin to teenage sex—something everyone is talking about but few are actually doing."

THERE'S ALSO LITTLE REASON to be totally transparent when a company profits from unethical behavior. What kind of executive would volunteer to reveal that? In the book The Naked Corporation: How the Age of Transparency Will Revolutionize Business, the authors write that the motto "'avoid doing bad’ is increasingly 'not good enough.'" Today's knowledgeable consumers demand integrity, which, if achieved, can help create trust and boost a company's bottom line. And, after all, it's always better to openly admit imperfections than hide behind a wall of silence, giving the public good reason to think the worst.

In the years to come, Urban suspects companies that aren't open and transparent will get left behind. For some, it's a life-and-death situation—especially since traditional marketing has a past littered with lies, telling customers whatever's required to move the product. Then again, it's complicated. "The world is trending toward trust, but there's still big pressure on marketing people to promote and get sales no matter what it takes, and firms are in conflict with how to deal with that," Urban says. "Sometimes they pursue both sides of the equation."

As the world’s most recognizable fast-food joint, McDonald's has a history of taking a lot of heat for the industry as a whole. In 2003, for instance, two overweight teenagers sued McDonald's for making them fat. A year later, the Oscar-nominated documentary Super Size Me made the franchise look terribly unhealthy. (In an apparent response to the film, McDonald's CEO Don Thompson recently claimed he lost 20 pounds despite eating at McDonald's every day.) In a sense, McDonald's has had to fight to control its narrative more than most brands, and, if successful, the new campaign might do wonders for other businesses interested in going transparent (or, again, at least seemingly transparent).

By now, however, Americans should know that McDonald's stands for food done cheap, quick, and tasty—not nutritious. And that's OK, if consumed in moderation. In Ray Kroc's 1977 autobiography Grinding It Out: The Making of McDonald's, he opens with the following sentence: "I have always believed that each man makes his own happiness and is responsible for his own problems." Perhaps, in an act of ultimate transparency, that should be McDonald's next slogan.

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