McDonald's Wants to Re-Brand? Fast Food Needs to Rethink Everything

Starting this year McDonald’s will begin the process of an 18-month rebrand. The need for a total makeover stems from a number of dismal sales months. A new report surveying 3,000 consumers also found that baby boomers, Gen-Xers and millennials are just not lovin’ fast food.


To combat the poor image, McDonald’s is offering free coffee the next two weeks. It also recently trademarked McBrunch, because, someone had to! McBrunch might not be coming anytime soon because of logistics, but the company is already implementing a new breakfast menu in San Diego that will make McDonald’s appear more like a French café than a billion-dollar burger shop. It will even include Petite Breakfast Pastries. As CEO Don Thompson stated, it’s all about creating a “more trusted and respected brand” that “customers will feel good about.”

But rebrand is an understatement. McDonald's needs an overhaul starting with the following.

1. Fast food’s global expansion prompts global obesity. The fast-food industry is a $225 billion behemoth and at the top of that pile is McDonald’s with $36 billion in U.S. sales. Subway comes in a distant second at $12 billion in U.S. sales, according to stats from QSR. You can find McDonald’s in more than 100 countries, in Trinidad, Puerto Rico, Vietnam and India. McDonald’s opened up 3,000 restaurants in five years between 2007 and 2012. In the U.S. there is one McDonald’s for every 22,174 citizens.

Although the correlation for a country’s obesity and fast food are not entirely definitive to some, it’s clear that fast food is a major component of obesity’s rise throughout the world. One study found a positive correlation between Subway restaurant penetration and prevalence of obesity in 26 advanced economies. In another study, Chinese Singaporeans who ate Western-style fast foods more than twice a week had a “27% increased risk of developing type 2 diabetes and a 56% increased risk of dying from CHD” compared to their peers who had “little or no intake.” The foods they ate included typical fast food fare like “hamburgers, cheeseburgers, French fries, pizza, other sandwiches, deep fried chicken, and hot dogs.” The study concludes, “To a large degree, fast-food companies use the same aggressive and misleading tactics that have been successfully used by tobacco companies to promote their products throughout the vast and rapidly emerging Asian market.”

James McGowan, author of the blog Traveling McDonald has reviewed more than 200 McDonald’s items around the world since 2005, many in Asian and European countries. He told me over email that healthy items are more of an “afterthought,” and that “the healthy alternatives like salads or wraps are pretty much non-existent.” He added, “Nutritional information is still not displayed on items, and many countries don't even bother putting it on their official websites.”

2. Fast food’s tax evasion and lax laws. Looks like Burger King has bought Tim Horton's, eh? As we reported previously, Burger King’s acquisition is a sneaky way to dodge taxes. Executive chairman Alex Behring begged to differ, and said, “This is not a tax-driven deal.” Regardless, fast food has its way of getting what it wants, entering different markets and expanding its global reach.

As The New York Times reported: “McDonald’s waited a long time to open in Vietnam, given its global brand recognition and likely appeal to young Vietnamese consumers. When it did, it tagged Henry Nguyen, the son-in-law of Prime Minister Nguyen Tan Dung, as its local franchisee.” Similarly, a 2007 study reported on a fast food “shock” occurring mostly in market-liberal countries. “There is something about market-liberal countries that causes obesity to increase faster than elsewhere.” It concludes, “One reason is market freedoms: fast-food prices…are considerably lower in market-liberal countries, due to lower levels of taxation and wages which prevail in market-liberal countries.”

3. Fresh fruits. In 2011 McDonald’s introduced Happy Meals with sliced apples and caramel dipping sauce. Nearly one year later, Burger King and McDonald’s were informed of a potential listeria outbreak with their apple slices. The 1.2-ounce packages of apple slices, oatmeal products containing apples, and McDonald’s 5.75-ounce fruit and walnut snacks were shipped out to nine states before the recall. Burger King’s slices were also included in the recall. As company spokesperson Terry Hickey told AlterNet, “Any product with a growing cycle and potential impacts beyond our control, such as weather, can provide some challenges in that regard.”

Still, you need to applaud McDonald’s for its attempts at fresh food. The smoothie line does contain fresh fruit puree, but then there's the sugar quotient. A 12-ounce serving boasts 57 percent more calories than your typical Coke can. And if you think Burger King’s smoothies are better, think again. The Tropical Mango Smoothie contains more calories than a typical McDonald’s smoothie.

McDonald’s is a behemoth in the fast food industry and introducing any new menu item can take years, which is an obvious problem in creating a healthy menu. When McDonald’s wanted to create the blueberry smoothie, it had to lock in suppliers, and make sure its ingredients were easy enough to be prepared in 30 seconds. It took an extra year to make the perfect smoothie.

When it introduced apples, it became the largest purchaser of apple slices at 60 billion pounds a year. It remains the largest purchaser of potatoes and that’s not entirely a good thing. McDonald’s potato farmers have been criticized for pesticide use hurting people in neighboring towns, while its perpetuation of monocultures has been marked as a destroyer of biodiversity, according to author Michael Pollan.

4. Sustainability. McDonald’s recently stated that it is making a commitment toward sustainable foods. It promises to begin sourcing sustainable beef by 2016 and adding more fruits and vegetables to its menu — a menu that contains more than 300 items. Every menu concept takes months, sometimes years to add. Like any restaurant, sourcing ingredients can be difficult, but put that in terms of a large fast-food scale and you have greater issues. In regards to its aspirations to buy 100 percent sustainable beef, some note that will take more than a decade.

5. Raises. The National Restaurant Association would have you believe there is absolutely no problem with labor. In response to reports from the fast food activist group, Fast Food Forward, they respond: “Nine out of 10 salaried employees started as hourly workers.” They add: “These misleading efforts use a very narrow lens and selective data to attack the industry for their own purposes and fail to recognize that the majority of lower-wage employees works part-time to supplement a family income. Moreover, 40 percent of line staff workers in restaurants, the primary focus of the reports, are students.”

If there’s anything fast food can do to its brand, it's to raise wages — CEOs, after all, make four times what they did in 2000 and the wages of workers have gone up just .03 percent, according to a report from the think tank Demos. It doesn’t help when stories like Jose Carillo's land in the news. At 81, Carillo cannot afford to retire and hasn’t received a raise in more than 10 years. A maintenance worker at a midtown McDonalds, he told the NY Daily News, “If it wasn’t for food stamps and Medicare I wouldn’t be able to take care of myself.”

Compare this to Starbucks which changed its scheduling policies for 130,000 employees seemingly overnight thanks to a New York Times story of a single mother working to make ends meet.

6. Advertising to children. It’s no surprise that fast food still markets to children. According to a 2013 report by the Yale Rudd Center for Food Policy & Obesity, "On the internet, McDonald’s [placed] 34 million display ads for Happy Meals per month – up 63% from 2009."

What’s more surprising, says Jennifer Harris, director of marketing initiatives at the center, is that parents have bought into the marketing. “From a public health perspective [fast food] contributes a lot of calories, sodium and fat to the U.S. diet so they're getting pressured to make their products healthier," Harris says. "When they do introduce their healthy products they send out a press release and make a big deal about it. But when they introduce the unhealthy stuff they don’t do that.”

According to the report:

"They featured (visually and audibly) the apple slices and milk available with Happy Meals and repeatedly showed a cartoon picture depicting a farm in the background with bread, carrots, a chicken leg, an apple, and milk in the foreground. Although these ads emphasized the importance of eating well, the health consequences of these messages are unclear given that not one of McDonald’s Happy Meals met all nutrition criteria and its Mighty Kids’ Meals were among the worst kids’ meal combinations available at any restaurant."

8. The jaw-dropping Frankenstein food. Not related to McDonald's so much, but has to be said. Burgers, fries and shakes have their place in America’s culinary history, but their culinary progeny are calorifically grotesque. Take for example these menu additions that really make you wonder, or in some cases, gag. Who can forget the KFC Double Down sandwich with fried chicken replacing the buns, or the recent breakfast favorite, the Taco Bell Waffle Taco that replaces a hard taco shell with a soft waffle? Finally! A taco for breakfast, complete with a pre-apportioned package of syrup to drizzle on top.

Or this latest creation: Arby’s “secret” Meat Mountain. For $10 (sometimes more) you can get a sandwich that stuffs roast beef, cheese, Angus steak, brisket, corned beef, more cheese, ham, turkey, and chicken tenders between two buns, and purportedly is under 1,200 calories. As the Onion headline jokes, “Arby's Now Charging $2.99 To Let Customers Go Behind Counter, Grab Handfuls Of Roast Beef.” Does anybody need that much meat in one sandwich? No. But then again, people are talking about it and journalists of all kinds (including this one) are talking about how ridiculous it is. Some are doing the honorable job of eating the whole thing and reporting back to the squadrons to ensure that, yes, it is a) gargantuan b) gross and c) freakish.

There's much more to be said about fast food and its survival that haven't even been discussed. But if McDonald's is going to rebrand, it'll take more than a speedy 18-month marketing scheme to recapture the sparkle in its golden arches.

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