Posted on June 11, 2021 in History, Ideas, Innovation, Marketing

Public Campaigns Vs. Public Image: A McDonald’s Story

#Farmers of McDonalds


#MeettheFarmers was the initial campaign, the one that McDonald’s had planned for. There was some static; the same issues that apply to the meat industry as a whole apply to McDonalds, but complaints of cruelty and poor animal husbandry didn’t completely ruin the hashtag. Generally, the farmers were happy, the animals looked happy, and McDonalds was happy with it’s campaign.

It’s always risky to get folks involved if the company doesn’t know for sure that they think of it positively, but so many farmers rely on McDonald’s that it was basically a slam dunk. Sure, PETA got a little rowdy, and nobody’s going to make themselves look bad by posting pictures of their sad or poorly treated animals, but the crop farmers generally felt that they’d been treated fairly by McDonald’s. This was great! McDonald’s does a lot to support local farming, and it was smart to emphasize how much of their food they bought from US farms. The patties are still packed with things that keep them from molding, but the cow didn’t have to fly overseas to get to it’s destination packing plant or restaurant.

It’s a genuinely good campaign – they could trust that they’d done right by the people who’d be replying, and they’d retweet specific responses as a form of curation.  Marketing done right!




After the success of #FarmersOfMcDonalds, McDonald’s paid to promote their next big hashtag, #McDStories. This went downhill, very fast. Where McD farmers are a small, controllable group who are generally professional, the public is… not. And it turns out, when a corporation consistently underpays and overworks it’s workers, they’re going to do things or skip things that customers notice. McDonalds yoinked the paid promotion slot, but by then it was already out of control.

All they could do was damage control as all sorts of nasty stories rolled in. Violence by staff members, sanitation issues in the bathroom, uncleaned ice tanks, solicitors in the parking lot, solicitors inside the store, solicitors coming up to windows in the drive through – customers had seen it all! Heck, even workers joined in – McDonald’s was apparently struggling with it’s management chain in places, and issues that could have been resolved with better training and store support (the shift lead isn’t supposed to be in charge of pest control, for example) just weren’t even getting noticed, until #McDStories forced them to the front of the line. Bugs. Food contamination. Food poisoning. Incorrect cleaners being used for grills and the ice cream machine. Rats. All things that could be controlled or even eliminated with better contact from whoever’s in charge of regional management.

Beyond that, though, the campaign showed that McDonald’s didn’t really know how it looked on the outside. A fast food restaurant universally loved by children, or a fast food restaurant with locations that play it fast and loose with adult customers’ food? The upper management had allowed both to happen, but only one of those demographics is regularly on Twitter.

McDStories highlights a critical disconnect between the McDonald’s marketing department and the outside world.


Marketing Mistake


Every company wants to be perfect in the customer’s mind. They all want to be clean, friendly (except for Dick’s), and accessible. However, things start to split when you get specific: pubs cater to adults, so they wouldn’t have the same bright colors as family-friendly restaurants. Therefore, the marketing for a pub is going to be very different than the marketing for a fast-food restaurant for kids. McDonald’s has been trying to shift more towards adults in modern times, and since adults care about different things than they used to, McDonald’s has been struggling to find a common thread among McDonald’s customers. Maybe this was a crowd-sourcing campaign for ad ideas, maybe it was just an attempt to appeal to adults.

Either way, it made a disconnect between ‘McDonald’s the brand’ and ‘McDonald’s the restaurant chain’ pretty obvious. You’d never see Waffle House doing this sort of campaign. Waffle House knows what kind of people stumble into their restaurants at 3 AM for a couple of post-bar waffles, and wild stories of incidents inside Waffle Houses scatter the web. A famous Vine shows two of the employees fighting while a customer asks for a waffle in the background. And yet, Waffle House is well-liked. It knows what it is, it doesn’t try to pretend every customer has a great time; they’re there for cheap food and the strange sense of community a 3AM Waffle House has. Besides, Waffle House’s management style seems to keep customers and workers alike pretty happy!

Denny’s, another cheap diner with 24 hr locations, has incidents, but they rarely go viral. They’ve gotten a cultural image of ‘you ate at Denny’s, you knew what you were getting into’. McDonald’s has unknowingly slipped into the same territory – appealing to adults with a 24hr schedule means you’re going to get some strange customers. They don’t seem to realize that’s where they’re at, so they don’t know how to lean into it yet like other 24 hr restaurants do. They’re very concerned with being family friendly. Management- and Marketing-wise, something’s obviously slipping if these stories were genuinely unexpected.


How Could They Fix It?


The long and the short of it is to listen. Burger King’s rat-bun scandal caused the store to shut down while Burger King corporate handled the issue. McDonald’s has had complaint-tweets before, but somehow they don’t get much traction until the tweet’s got a bunch of retweets, so really, they set themselves up by using a scrollable tag. Companies that won’t respond to anything but highly public tweets about their issue do this to themselves. If a complaint to the manager or to corporate doesn’t change things, then of course the customer is going to resort to what works.

Listen to customers through official channels, and the unofficial ones that everyone can see won’t be flooded with horrible stories of missing quality!