JWT’s AnxietyIndex is designed as a place to discuss how brands and consumers are responding to the global recession. With daily content updates, AnxietyIndex.com includes contributions from around JWT’s network, offering a truly global perspective.
Two years ago we wrote about McDonald’s’ transparency kick in the U.K. (the site What Makes McDonald’s) and Canada, where yourquestions.mcdonalds.ca invited consumers to ask whatever questions they had, “even the tough ones.” Those efforts followed an Australian TV documentary sponsored by the brand, McDonald’s Gets Grilled, which showed several consumers touring various company operations, sometimes asking challenging questions. The latest effort to address anxieties about fast food—exactly how it’s made and with what ingredients, etc.—is an American campaign that answers consumers’ most frequently asked questions.
A YouTube video series features Grant Imahara from the show MythBusters visiting McDonald’s suppliers. Another video shows people asking questions at an outdoor ad that solicited queries. Naturally these are all questions that McDonald’s can answer easily; answers are posted online (e.g., Chicken McNuggets do not contain pink slime and are made from the tenderloin, breast and rib, ground with a bit of chicken skin and a marinade). The company is also soliciting questions via tweet and tweeting responses.
The simple act of opening up to questions may reassure some of today’s increasingly skeptical consumers. But as the ranks of curious, educated and anxious eaters keep growing, McDonald’s will have to do more to boost confidence that it sells “real” food made from wholesome ingredients. With both McDonald’s and Coca-Cola stumbling at the moment—“Soda and Fries Have Lost Their Charm for Both Consumers and Investors,” writes Slate—we’ll see food companies not only marketing in new ways but also changing their products to meet rising demand for better-for-you ingredients.
Aiming to address a range of consumer anxieties about fast food—exactly how it’s made and with what ingredients, etc.—McDonald’s has been on a transparency kick in several markets. On our sister blog JWTIntelligence.com, we recently wrote about an Australian TV documentary that the brand sponsored, McDonald’s Gets Grilled, which showed six consumers touring various company operations (from farm to factory to retail), sometimes asking challenging questions. In the U.K., McDonald’s recently retooled its five-year-old transparency-focused site, MakeUpYourOwnMind.co.uk, into What Makes McDonald’s, because “there are still lots of myths out there about McDonald’s, and lots of things that people simply don’t know about us,” a U.K. marketing VP told Marketing magazine. The site includes articles and videos that take consumers behind the scenes of company operations.
In Canada, yourquestions.mcdonalds.ca invites consumers to ask whatever questions they have, promising to answer “even the tough ones.” Questions touch on a range of issues, such as pink slime, chemicals in Big Macs and conditions that chickens are raised in. Two weeks ago the brand generated buzz after posting a video response to a question about why the food looks different in advertising. The director of marketing for McDonald’s Canada takes viewers through the food-styling process, explaining why various tricks and tweaks are applied to the basic burger. Consumers responded to the brand’s “unwrapping the process” (one of our 100 Things to Watch in 2012): The video generated a few million YouTube views in a matter of days.
Competitive pressures are forcing manufacturers and retailers to take transparency to the max—as we noted in one of our 10 Trends for 2010, Maximum Disclosure—revealing ever more about everything from nutritional data to sourcing, as well as the people and processes behind the brand. The ranks of the curious (and anxious) consumer keep growing, though in many cases the simple fact of disclosure will matter more than the specific information revealed.
Late last month, a California woman filed a class-action lawsuit against Taco Bell, claiming the seasoned beef in its tacos contains so many other ingredients that it can’t be classified as beef. Taco Bell responded by running a sarcastic ad headlined “Thank you for suing us” in major papers including The Wall Street Journal, USA Today and The New York Times—turning the accusation into an opportunity to tell consumers “the truth about our seasoned beef.” The ad says the “REAL percentages” are “88% Beef and 12% Secret Recipe,” then details those other ingredients, reassuring consumers that Taco Bell meat is “just like the quality beef you buy in a supermarket and prepare in your home.” The brand smartly turned to social media as well, posting a message from president Greg Creed on its Facebook and YouTube pages.
At a time when consumers are hyper-aware of and anxious about what they put into—and keep out—of their bodies, the buzz over the lawsuit has the potential to be very detrimental to the brand. But Taco Bell seems to have assured its fan base that there’s nothing to fear, at least judging from YouTube comments along the lines of “I’m glad to see a Corporation ‘Kick ass.’ Give ’em hell, Taco Bell!” and “I have a new found respect for Taco Bell for coming out like this, makes them look very xXTOUGHXx.” For now, Taco Bell has turned the tables on its accusers, positioning itself as a defiant, “take no crap” victim.
For teens and young adults, who have some of the highest unemployment rates of any cohort thanks to the recession, saving money for the finer things in life can be a challenge in today’s economy. For a recent promotion from Hungary that targeted this demographic, McDonald’s smartly positioned its “two cheeseburgers for one euro” promotion as a solution for penny-pinching youth by playing up the idea that spending less on food translates into funds for fun purchases.
In unlikely pairings, McDonald’s worked itself into the window displays of high-end retailers around Budapest, covering scooters, Converse sneakers, Ray-Bans, Dolce & Gabbana apparel, guitars and other products in its unmistakable cheeseburger wrapping. A sign reading “Everyone saves for something. Here is a little help for you” accompanied each wrapped product.
Instead of touting “bargain,” McDonald’s aligned itself with aspirational or cool brands, elevating its status and present itself as a means of attaining the finer things in life.
In our spring AnxietyIndex Quarterly report “The Genericizing of Brands” (downloadable from our Trends and Research section), we argue that tactics must be approached in a branded way—that brands must find a unique value voice. A recent Wendy’s commercial for the Deluxe Value Meal is a good example of that.
The commercial, a part of the fast food chain’s “You Know When It’s Real” campaign, shows two guys eating a burger combo meal. But while one has only a tiny plastic burger, fries and soda, the other is eating a real and satisfying lunch from Wendy’s. The man with the miniature version notes that his meal cost just $2.99, only to hear that the other guy paid the same low price.
In a downturn, consumers tend to search for smaller, cheaper options, and in response, most brands target price-driven consumers with basic offers, usually inferior alternatives to the “real thing.” Using an absurdist comparative approach, Wendy’s assures consumers that it’s not among those promising “less for less” and that customers need not make sacrifices in order to save.
In a recent promotion for summer drinks, McDonald’s in China turned a simple buy-one-get-one-free offer into a resonant campaign that enhanced the value of the brand rather than take away from it (see commercial here). This was done by laddering the promotion to a higher-order benefit: quality time spent face-to-face with friends.
The campaign leveraged the insight that youth tend to spend more time online than socializing with friends outside the home. Hence the strategy was to encourage youth to meet their closest friends more often, at McDonald’s. The creative idea is that even though one may have hundreds of friends online, only a few of those are close buddies, and more time should be spent with them offline.
As we noted in our first issue of the AnxietyIndex Quarterly, “The Genericizing of Brands,” price and value messaging must be approached in a branded way. When offering consumers more value, smart advertisers make sure the offer works harder than a promotion, something that McDonald’s has pulled off with this campaign.
Recently, fast food purveyors such as KFC and a local chicken fast food chain called Al-Tazaj (which translates as “fresh”) have been offering budget meals. This is notable because it represents a change in approach; normally, these companies run all-you-can-eat promotions, rather than discounted price offers.
As people seek to reduce their budgets, they are eating a bit less at fast food restaurants, opting instead to eat at home. As the global economic downturn decreases the number of construction projects in Saudi Arabia, there are fewer of the workers who make up a sizable percentage of customers at these low-cost fast food joints.
These promotions may actually be a great development all around: The consumer can have his favorite grilled or fried chicken cheap. And it proves that the brands understand their customers and want to help them enjoy a hot, quick meal. I have already seen anecdotal evidence of people using these offers. On Friday (which is the end of the weekend here in KSA), the cashiers remarked that since the campaign started, they have more traffic than they can handle.
CiCi’s Pizza, the $5 buffet chain, is giving “a penny saved is a penny earned” a whole new meaning. Its strangely depressing “Penny Picker Upper” campaign involves leaving 1 million pennies affixed with stickers offering coupon deals near each of the 650 restaurants. As noted in The Wall Street Journal , many quick-service restaurant chains—Denny’s, Domino’s and Subway among them—are offering “aggressive promotions” as the industry suffers the fallout of people eating at home more.
While it’s nice that a donation is given to Big Brothers Big Sisters of America after the return of each penny, asking patrons to scrounge for pennies in public won’t help boost consumer optimism. Especially when millions are now searching for real change every day.
The recession opens up opportunities for brands to identify gaps in the market and create products that provide affordable indulgence. Here’s one good example:
In this country, a sachet (single-dose pack) of Nescafe Instant Coffee is the common waker-upper, while brewed coffee remains an indulgent luxury for many. 7-Eleven Philippines, which used to offer only vending-machine-type instant coffee, is attempting to fill this gap with brewed coffee priced at 35 pesos a cup (roughly 72 cents). By comparison, Starbucks sets you back at least 90 pesos ($1.85).
The catch: DIY. You pour your own brew from the coffee machine and put on the cover and sleeve. The silver lining: Unlike Starbucks, where you wait for your barista, here you pay, DIY-assemble and you’re off.
7-Eleven’s coffee has proved popular among the office crowd, even in Makati streets, where convenience stores are side by side with Starbucks. In offices we visited, 7-Eleven’s coffee cup was as prevalent as Starbucks’ green and white cup.
With the credit crisis having a “profound effect” on household spending in the U.K., according to the Telegraph, it seems fast food brands are having the time of their lives. There has been a veritable procession of good results from the likes of Domino’s, KFC, McDonald’s, Subway and Gregg’s. All plan to open many more stores while creating thousands of jobs.
Is it possible, however, that in their hurry to leverage their recent success, these brands are setting themselves up for a hard landing when recovery kicks in? The current economic crisis may change mind-sets for the long term—causing a deep re-evaluation of spending and lifestyle habits—thus fostering a permanent love for affordable brands among mainstream consumers. But it’s also possible that this shift is nothing more than a short-term coping strategy. Given that aspirations are more likely to be bottled temporarily than shelved permanently, it may be a good idea for brands to closely follow consumer psyche and behavior down and up the economy curve as they plan ahead—especially if “cheaper” is their only calling card.