McDonald's campaign a success in customer dialogue

McDonald's Canada told the truth about its food on its web site. It may not make you a customer but you have to admire their openness.

Ever wonder how McDonald’s french fries are made? According to the company, a machine called a water-gun knife propels the spuds through a set of steel blades at approximately 65 kilometres per hour. That’s just one of the interesting facts I learned through the new “Our Food. Your Questions” social-media campaign from McDonald’s Canada. I also learned why their hamburgers don’t rot (not enough moisture, so they just dry out), whether there’s any “pink slime” in the beef (not here in Canada, it’s not legal), and whether you can ask them to blend a fruit pie into your McFlurry (short answer: no). It was probably the most fun I’ve ever had at a corporate website, though I’m not sure it exactly whetted my appetite.

The campaign, which launched back in the spring, has been gathering steam over the summer, and a couple of weeks ago McDonald’s added TV ads to back up what had been a slow-build digital effort. The big idea is that anyone in Canada can ask any food-related question and McDonald’s will dig up an answer and post it on its website. Questions can be submitted via Twitter, Facebook and the site, and while the company does screen the questions, I was shocked by what made it through. Recent queries include: “Do you use embalming fluid in your patties to keep them from rotting?” and “Did you ever whatch the movie super sise me [sic]” (Yes, they did, but they didn’t like it).

Produced by McDonald’s Canada in association with digital ad agency Tribal DDB Canada, this is the bravest campaign I’ve seen in years. I think it marks a turning point in how large corporations will interact with their customers going forward. It was the transparency that got me. It feels real. It changed my perception of what McDonald’s is all about.

Back in the spring, just before this campaign launched, Canadian Business spoke with McDonald’s Canada CEO John Betts. He was surprisingly frank about the fact that McDonald’s had let food quality slip in the pursuit of profits, and that was a mistake. He said he understood that some customers were embarrassed to say they eat at McDonald’s, and he wanted to change that.

This campaign is part of his response, and it’s a gutsy one. It’s gutsy because in order to respond to these myths, McDonald’s has to give them a forum. Some people will have never heard of pink slime before they read about it on McDonald’s own website. It’s gutsy because the questions are touchy. Like when someone asks how many calories there are in a large strawberry milkshake, and the company responds, honestly, that it contains a whopping 1,110 calories. “Truly an indulgent (and delicious) summertime dessert!” the site adds cheerfully.

I’m actually not sure this effort will do much to drive traffic to the restaurants. After spending half an hour reading questions about chicken “cut offs” and what preservatives they use, my appetite was dead. But it’s the start of a new dialogue for the company, and it’s one that made me trust the company more. It’s helping to give a big bland corporation personality, and the personality is surprisingly likable.

Of course, it also works because McDonald’s really has changed. Its food is fresher and healthier than it used to be, and much of that change was made in response to critics. I don’t like McDonald’s food much, and I personally haven’t been to one of their restaurants in years. But this campaign made me want to give them a second chance. I bet thousands of others will feel the same.