How to Talk to Your Customers (or The Revenge of Pink Slime)


McDonalds is taking another royal drubbing.  According to financial reports MCD has missed its earning forecast for the the last four quarters.  There was a time when that was unheard of for the burger monster.  But people started talking about Pink Slime.  It was pretty gross.  Then other burger joints started promoting quality over quantity.  Five Guys, In-N-Out, Shake Shack.  Then Chipotle came along and started promoting healthy food for patrons.  Panera Bread jumped in the game with cause-based promotions and the CEO took The Food Stamp Challenge.  McDonalds started slipping.  They tried to jazz up their interiors. They kept trying new menu items (as of this writing the Bacon Habanero Clubhouse Ranch Burger is their special–48% of your daily fat).  And the other guys kept chipping away.  They promoted “out of the box” thinking like freshly baked bread, non-GMO meats, really good salads, and a sense of community that is simply lost in the “billions and billions” served world view.  So as the earnings report continued to paint a bleak reality McDonalds recently pushed back in a new and tragicomic way: The took us behind the curtain with a social media campaign entitled “Our Food.  Your Questions.” Here’s a link to a truly weird tour of their chicken plant:

The concept is simple: Use social media to “talk” with “real” people who are asking questions about McDonald’s suspect stereotypes.  Questions like: “Is there pink slime in your chicken nuggets?” and “Do you use real beef?” and “Why is your food so cheap?”  Not that people who eat a ton of McDonalds care about these questions but still…  After the question is asked a “real” person becomes an investigative reporter and takes a tour of, say, a chicken processing plant (see above).  The faux-reality of the discovery is augmented by a McDonalds representative (typically associated with Cargill) who is mostly young and mostly hip and very aware that someone from Marketing is sitting in the background miming “SMILE” as much as possible.  Sarcasm aside the videos are intended to dispel the myths and pull health conscious eaters away from Panera.  It is, in other words, a manufactured defense.  And man does it miss the point.  Watch the chicken video.  Heck, watch ’em all!  Pink slime is disgusting, but no more so than watching thousands of hormone inflated chicken breasts be ground to mush while the spokeswoman excitedly talks about chicken skin additives!  Watching tens of thousands of pieces of beef “trimmings” be transformed in to something closer to applesauce than burger meat sort of misses the mark as well.  The phony spokesperson, the puppet representatives…it’s all so farcical that you wonder if McDonalds has any clue as to how to actually connect with their customers let alone to use a social media format that has helped their videos go viral…another gaff.  Another backfire.

Two points of contrast: Chipotle and Panera.  Two companies that have successfully used behing-the-scenes promotions and social media to talk to their customers in ways that make McDonalds feel stodgy.  Take a look at the “Chipotle Culinary Story.”  Here’s the link:

Chipotle’s founder talks about purpose and meaning in his company.  He talks about how Chipotle sources food and the values behind those decisions.  He talks about the work and care and preparation that goes in to a service.  And he’s fit, articulate, and committed.  It’s hard to imagine the CEO of McDonalds having the same impact in his suit and tie.

Now take a look at the Panera story:

“Live Consciously.  Eat Deliciously.”  Brilliant.  And not to beat a dead horse, so to speak, but the effectiveness of the message–from quality ingredients to health standards to their charitable donations speaks to a new kind of consumer in the world of QSR (quick service restaurant, it’s a real term).  More than that, however, is that McDonald’s ham-handed attempt at a “conversation” in order to build trust simply illustrates how out-of-touch the company truly is in a modern economy.

I’ve written a good deal lately about knowing your customers in a new way.  A better way.  Which is to say that knowing them beyond the transaction is a mandate these days.  Part of any relationship with customers has to be about knowing them well enough to sustain a relevant two-way dialog.  Sharing things with your customers that they care about, are interested in, want more of, are moved by, and are inspired by is a basic aspect of this function.  Done well, as in the case of Chipotle and Panera, the company is transformed in to something extraordinary.  Done poorly (which in McDonald’s case means defensive and artificial) the sharing turns in to a grenade.

Perhaps the big lesson is this: Customers are co-creating your brand.  And if that’s the case doesn’t it make sense to ensure that your content sharing is as reflective of their interests and priorities as possible?

4 responses

  1. Matt, I find your marketing analysis very insightful and in this case spot on. It doesn’t matter what business you are in. In this case, we have a company that is probably in everyone’s 401k portfolio in one way or another, and they don’t know the value of why their customers buy from them. I’m trying not to press the panic sell button right now. Thanks Matt!! 😉

    • Jim!! Thanks for the reply. Please don’t take my post as financial forecasting. Wall Street will do that for you. But I do think MCD is utterly out of step. All the best my friend and thanks for the note. MP

  2. Wow! So well said and helpful. Besides using two of our favorite qsr places, you put the challenge out to me to make sure our customers continue to “co-create” our brand. Thanks.

    • Hi Sue and thanks for the note! I think it’s one of those “things” that is incredibly important to keep in mind–you make the product (and it’s a beautiful product by the by) and market the product. But that doesn’t ensure that the message is kept in tact. It evolves and spreads once the consumer purchases the product or researches the product or falls in love with the product. There’s an extra dimension to marketing these days. Moreover, it’s become a conversation and like all conversations it means that two people have to learn to translate each other’s message as accurately and relevantly as possible. Very exciting opportunity! Glad you like the post and keep on keep’n on! Your friend Matt

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