McDonald’s is in trouble. Sales have dropped (see WSJ), the brand image is weak, and the company seems to have lost its sizzle. Every other business magazine is writing a story about the decline of the brand (1, 2, 3, 4 etc.) and the company itself seems to be reacting in a random manner, without desirable results.
The problem is the overall brand image of the company. For decades, it was a given that McDonald’s was the king of fast-food. Its predominance was spouted in management books, ads, films and everywhere else. For more than 40 years, McDonald’s has been known as the number one fast-food company, while it has simultaneously become a world icon of unhealthy eating.
McDonald’s has not figured out what to do about its ailing brand image. While the company is trying all kinds of fixes, none of them is changing fundamental public perceptions. Let’s look at few things that McDonald’s is trying to do to captivate customers:
- Adding waiters to McDonald’s restaurants. Waiters will only confuse customers and make them uncertain about what McDonald’s stands for. Imagine Maxim’s in Paris turning into a fast-food restaurant.
- Offering both simple menus (to imitate Burger King) and, at the same time, more complex menus (Create Your Taste). These are mixed messages to customers who interpret these as actions as a desperate attempt to please everyone by covering every possible base. When an industry giant such as McDonald’s imitates the competition instead of innovating, customers can detect its decline.
- Starting a delivery service. Again, the company is trying to imitate as many characteristics of other fast-food chains as possible.
- Other adjustments. McDonald’s has been revamping menu items, replacing ingredients, changing packaging, and it has started serving breakfast all day. These are all similar to actions that other companies take on a regular basis. So, it’s unlikely that any of these modifications will shift the fundamental feel towards the overall brand.
To turn business around and improve its public image, McDonald’s has to change its brand image fundamentally. Otherwise the brand might fade away partially, if not completely. If the McDonald’s basic brand image is not overhauled radically within 2-3 years, we might see that the majority of customers have turned away from McDonald’s and towards market players that appeal better to current trends.
What can McDonald’s do? For 40 years customers have been conditioned to think that McDonald’s is all about food that is made fast. The company now must convince the public that it has a completely new brand image. For years, ‘fast food’ was a rather positive idea, but people’s values have drastically changed in the opposite direction. Now, fast means low quality and that’s the new reality to which McDonald’s has to adapt. It is the main reason for the decline in company sales. The old brand image that once was loved by the world has grown old and stale, and people are increasingly looking for other options.
The solution for McDonald’s: Become the opposite of fast food and low quality food. Think and talk about the biggest brand change in history. Stop thinking about ‘fast’ – think in terms of ‘always available’. That takes the focus from your industrial production (also associated with low quality) and shifts it to thinking about the customer. And don’t concentrate on changing menu items; think bigger than that. Finally, here comes the hard part: Let customers around the world know about ‘the biggest brand change in history’ with such a strong voice that it will overwrite the old brand image that has been stuck in people’s minds for decades.
Think in terms of completely turning around the core image of your company in a way that everyone will notice. People have to sense that this is not merely change, but rather a brand revolution. The job is to get the public to perceive black as white, or turn Britney Spears’ image into that of Kurt Cobain. Anything less would indicate that the senior management of the company is thinking too small.
The revolution can begin with many different strategies. One is to enlist the assistance of those interested in marketing, branding, and developing business, as well as avid TV-watchers. Here’s how:
- Announce the biggest brand change in history: That McDonald’s has decided to transform into the king of healthy, handmade, always available food.
- Ask the public to participate in the task of helping the company to determine its future. This would generate an enormous amount of buzz. Putting this project in the hands of customers is not only innovative, it would also make history.
- Harness the web, social media, mobile applications and public voices to gather opinions about how to further define this one-of-a-kind brand change.
- Ask students in the top major universities to participate formally, and get them to join the task force to define further how this world-renowned company should change menus, restaurants, etc. in accordance with the new brand image. Students in management, marketing, branding and strategic planning would love to make such a project a cornerstone of their studies for one year.
- Document the change. Record short video clips and longer episodes of the project’s progress. Focus on the fun part of the change, showing the audience how decisions were made and how ideas emerged. The video clips could even be broadcast on a TV show featuring a discussion of the problem as well as the process of bringing about the change: selecting options, evaluating, and decision-making. Tele-voting could be used on some occasions, allowing the public to send in their opinions.
- Talk about the new McDonald’s as a re-birth of an iconic American brand, created by young people all across the globe.
Maybe McDonald’s is too conservative to consider such a bold act. But if that’s true, then McDonald’s is possibly too conservative to appeal to customers of the future. The company has to understand that the key is to completely revolutionize the McDonald’s image. Stop thinking about minor alterations. Think on a much broader scale. Changing menu items and adding waiters will not do the trick. Go for the big idea, McDonald’s, and we might start ‘Lovin’ It’ again.