McDonald’s unprecedented corporate-transparency marketing campaign, “Our Food. Your questions,” is the fast food giant’s attempt to reduce the impact of one major aspect of its brand and operations — low prices and massive amounts of highly processed foods have led to questions about what exactly is in its food, whether it is all safe for human consumption and how integral various aspects of sustainability are to its supply chain.
The platform invites people to submit questions via Twitter and Facebook, and McDonald’s is answering the most common ones digitally. There also are online videos and TV commercials that draw the curtains back around McDonald’s food-processing operations, such as the making of hamburgers and McNuggets.
Through the campaign, McDonald’s is indeed allowing the public’s prying eyes into many of the places where critics have raised questions — and its performance and products seem to hold up pretty well under the glare.
For example, in one video posted on the company’s home page, McDonald’s CEO Don Thompson tours a Cargill beef patty plant with MythBusters co-host Grant Imihara, who asks a plant supervisor, “Are there lips and eyeballs in there?” The evidenced shows there aren’t.
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And elsewhere, the chain squarely addresses areas where sustainability and food-purity enforcers wouldn’t pass McDonald’s. The company admits, for instance, that the chemical azodicarbonamide — a substance used to increase the elasticity of many non-food products such as yoga mats — is indeed an ingredient in its buns and rolls.
But McDonald’s gets defensive about the logic behind this fact. “As a result,” its explanation reads, “some people have suggested our food contains rubber or plastic, or that the ingredient is unsafe. It’s simply not the case. Think of salt: The salt you use in your food at home is a variation of the salt you may use to de-ice your sidewalk.”
And in at least one case, a ridiculous bit of speculation seems beyond the pale even for a transparency-building campaign, and the chain treats it with the respect it deserves: “Does McDonald’s beef contain worms?” the brand asks itself online. The answer: “No. Gross! End of story.”
It can be argued that McDonald’s should have brought this campaign to the United States much sooner. It launched such a transparency effort in Canada in 2012 and in Australia last year, and two years ago there was a very convincing online video available of McDonald’s Chicken Nugget production in Canada that wouldn’t have given consumers any pause. Why didn’t McDonald’s, which has been hurting in its home U.S. market as much as anywhere lately, rush to do the same thing in the United States rather than waiting two years?
A sustainability- or transparency-based campaign may be too late to save McDonald’s, anyway. U.S. sales keep eroding under problems that Thompson has acknowledged — too big a menu; service that has slowed; not to mention relentless competition, including from fast-casual brands that have bona fide sustainability credibility, such as Chipotle. But efforts to counteract those trends so far either haven’t taken effect or haven’t brought customers back.
McDonald’s bold approach to transparency isn’t going to turn around the company all by itself. But there’s little doubt the chain’s downward slide would have accelerated further if management hadn’t finally addressed some of the questions about food quality and sustainability that have dogged McDonald’s for years.
In the end, transparency looks good on McDonald’s. But so far, it isn’t getting people back to the Golden Arches.