It’s May 10, 1997, the final school bell rings and I start to get excited. I change into my new outfit, pink pedal pushers and a matching top (this was fashionable back then), my school mates start to arrive. McDonald's are the hosts of my 13th birthday party and its chicken nuggets, hamburgers and fries all round.
Now, 7 years on and thankfully my fashion sense has improved. However, some things have remained the same. McDonald's are still the multi-million pound corporation they always were and they are still holding parties for what seems to be their number 1 target public: children.
In the past year worrying reports have emerged stating that the majority of UK people are overweight and child obesity levels have increased. All of a sudden the country has gone into ‘health’ overdrive. The government published a White Paper called “Choosing Health”, that revealed their plans to invest money into better advertising campaigns promoting healthy eating in children. Unsurprisingly, Z-lists celebrities jumped on the band wagon and have either released a book or a workout video. I have Nell McAndrews' version and followed it...once.
As a result of this ongoing obesity debate, McDonald's and the fast-food industry as a whole saw itself on the receiving end of negative publicity and suffered major criticism for providing unhealthy food. 2004 was the first year McDonald's announced a loss in profits, coinciding with the release of the film documentary “Super Size Me” in July. The film follows the journey of Morgan Spurlock, who set out to discover the implications of eating nothing but Maccy D's for a whole month, following three rules: he could only eat what was available, no super-sizing unless offered, and he had to eat every item on the menu at least once.
Now as we approach the end of 2005 what have the masterminds behind the famous Golden Arches been doing for the past year to convince their 2.5 million customers to put their trust and money back into the organisation? John F. Love, who wrote the book “McDonald's: Behind the Arches”, said the McDonald's Corporation is: “...the most recognised brand but the least understood corporation”. This statement I believe underpins the exact position of McDonald's.
Since the McDonald's Corporation was formed in 1955, it has grown impressively from a single hamburger stand to over 26,500 outlets in more than 119 countries. However, the news coverage McDonald's has received over the years has mainly been about how many hamburgers they have sold and how it markets itself rather than about the real, underlying strategies adopted by the corporation.
It is reported more than $1 billion a year is spent on promoting the brand through advertising and marketing communications, but since the important rise in health issues McDonald's have opened their doors and released more information on policies. I have come to the conclusion since looking at McDonald's more in depth that the company employs more PR strategies than any other marketing communication tool. But what is it about PR that has the deciding factor over, let's say, advertising? PR offers two-way symmetrical or, as Grunig now calls it, 'mixed motive communication' with publics where advertising cannot.
Probably one of the longest standing associations the company has is none other than their mascot ‘Ronald McDonald’, apparently just as popular with American Kids as Santa Claus. Ronald McDonald, the face of McDonald's has recently been given friends, going by the name of ‘YumChums’, who live in everybody’s tummy. Together they are using song and dance to promote the messages about young children eating sensibly and leading an active lifestyle. These new characters have been made as a response to the call from the UK government for better messages about diet and exercise in children.
The way McDonald's had introduce the YumChums is a perfect way of communicating with children. Not only are McDonald's sending out the right message but they are also planting the seeds for what could be future relationships with this age group when they reach their teenage and adult years. What has to be maintained is the communication process from McDonald's so they keep these relationships strong and beneficial.
Programmes and partnerships that McDonalds are involved with are only now starting to be published. The most recent programme is the 3 generations ‘Active for 60 minutes a day’ campaign. Past, present and future sporting personalities have joined forces to inspire kids to be more active for at least 60 minutes a day, using the strap-line ‘it’s what I eat and what I do’.
The endorsers taking part in the programme are Olympic winners James Cracknell OBE, Sharon Davies, and World Cup legend Sir Geoff Hurst MBE. Future hopefuls include Kate Haywood (18 year old swimmer), Ben Kilner (16 year old half-pipe snowboarder), to name just two. Hopefully children will aspire to these kids and sporting heroes and will be inspired to take part in similar activities.
A more sustained programme that McDonald's has been involved with for years is the Community Football Programme. Through partnerships with the four national football associations McDonald's is expected to train 10,000 community football coaches by 2006 to teach under 11's football skills. So far the programme has more than 6,000 qualified coaches and over 3 million children have received free training. Through their association McDonald’s will gain positive reputation values, which in turn will help to regain the lost trust of those consumers who believed the ‘Super Size Me’ film.
It is all well and good having these programmes in place and using the correct personalities to front the campaign, but the bottom line in improving people's health is the need to change their behaviour patterns. The challenge is to get both children and parents away from the television set and into the fresh air, participating in an energetic activity, together. McDonalds agree that the core responsibility for people is to get the right balanced diet and this can be achieved while enjoying McDonald's food, but in moderation.
In response to the Super Size Me film they wrote a press release saying: “We believe the Super Size Me message that it’s important to have a balanced diet and take exercise – something we’ve been saying for a long time”. However, they do also claim that: “Our average customer visits our restaurants two or three times a month and it would take them between seven to eight years to consume what Mr Spurlock did in 30 days”.
Where do McDonald's go from here? They have launched a new range of healthier products and seem to be environmentally aware, constantly looking for the next possible partnership. They honestly believe that you can eat McDonalds and still live a healthy lifestyle. So do I. The messages McDonalds have been communicating lately must be, as the saying goes ‘singing off the same sheet’. To help build an honest corporate reputation they have to be seen to do what they say they are doing. By using their strong brand McDonald's are committed to being socially responsible, talking to children the world over about health issues and offering their customers a wide choice of options.
I believe McDonald's in another seven years will still be as big as they are today. My question is though, will the traditional hamburger, the renowned Big Mac or Chicken McNuggets still be on offer when my child wants to celebrate his/her 13th birthday at McDonald's?