How McDonald’s increased brand trust with transparency, authenticity

By Andree Gosselin O’Meara

In January 2003, a lawsuit was brought against McDonald’s by two overweight teenaged girls on the grounds that they became obese as a result of eating food from McDonald’s restaurants.

The plaintiffs at the time alleged “the practices of McDonald’s in making and selling their products are deceptive and that this deception has caused the minors who have consumed McDonald’s products to injure their health by becoming obese.”

The premise of this lawsuit was that the food was “physically and psychologically addictive,” and, therefore, McDonald’s was as guilty as the nicotine makers of the day. (Note: The lawsuit subsequently failed.)

Later the same year, independent filmmaker Morgan Spurlock attempted a unique experiment of eating only McDonald’s food for 30 days and monitoring the impact on his body and mood. The 2004 release of his documentary, “Super Size Me,” was one of the most damaging brand events against Ray Kroc’s original burger empire.

Fast-forward eight years. To dispel persistent rumours about its food, McDonald’s Canada in 2012 launched a bold experiment in corporate transparency and authenticity. The “Our Food. Your Questions” programme aimed to honestly answer consumer questions about the food, its content, its quality, its sourcing, and its overall safety standards.

Earlier this month, Richard Ellis, McDonald’s Canada’s senior vice president of communications, public affairs, and CSR, addressed a sustainability-friendly crowd in Toronto on this latest attempt by McDonald’s to set the record straight about the content of its food.

Consumers asked questions such as: “Is the egg in an Egg McMuffin® real?” and “Are your fries made with real potatoes?”

As one can see by the question posted below, some still feel the food is addictive.

To date, Ellis’ staff has answered more than 20,000 questions with remarkable results. Since the launch of the programme, Ellis claims McDonald’s Canada brand trust “jumped by 60%,” well beyond the company’s expectations and objectives.

Canada is not the only country in which McDonald’s has tried a programme of radical transparency and authenticity.

McDonald’s Australia (nicknamed Macca’s) came up with its own transparency programme with the “Track My Macca’s” app:

Using the GPS software in a cell phone to locate a particular McDonald’s outlet, a customer then scans a QR code to track the origin of the food being served, all the way to the farmer who grew the lettuce for the Big Mac®.

Transparency is at the heart of a solid Environmental, Societal, and Corporate Governance (ESG) strategy. It’s also incredibly difficult to achieve for most organisations, requiring strong CEO support and necessitating a fundamental shift in culture.

In the publishing industry, we are familiar with editorial transparency, achieved through clearly articulated journalistic guidelines that contribute to our brand trust. However, on the operations side, there is a lot of room for improvement in our industry.

Could we answer the question, “Where does the newsprint come from?” Could we QR code our newsprint and see which recycling plant or which forest the pulp came from?

About Andree Gosselin O’Meara

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