Confession time: when you work for an agency and a brand makes a mistake that takes their marketing completely off message, you email it to your colleagues then thank the advertising gods you weren’t in charge of the campaign. Then you forget about it until you see a new campaign that redeems their reputation and silently praise them on a good repair job.
But in the case of McDonalds, they didn’t redeem themselves and in just a fortnight, a poor decision was followed by a terrible error, which begs the question what on earth were they thinking?’
McDonald’s first mistake was to misjudge the Twitter audience (nowadays, what marketing campaign gone wrong doesn’t?). The brand adopted a series of hashtags to engage with users and, at first, with #MeetTheFarmers, all was well. But then they adopted #McDstories and things rapidly deteriorated.
The campaign might have worked if they had simply broadcast the hashtag to their followers; after all it’s reasonable to assume that people following the brand want to engage with it. But they didn’t. Instead they opted for the sponsored tweet route.
This sees a company pay for its hashtag to appear at the top of the trending topics list. Great exposure, so the theory goes, except that it worked against them. Rather than receiving examples of happy trips to the fast food chain, they received 140 character horror stories, such as the Twitterer who claimed to have found a fingernail in his burger.
The tweets went viral and migrated from social media to the mainstream news, forcing McDonalds to pull the campaign – but by that time the damage was done.
Move on a fortnight and another social media campaign thrust the fast food chain back into the spotlight. This time, however, it was consumers who took to Facebook to protest against McDonald’s strapline for a Kansas Cityradio ad which said that ‘eating a chicken McBite is safer than petting a pit bull’. Examples of other ‘risky pastimes’ given by McDonald’s included shaving your head, naming your son Sue or giving out your Facebook password.
Pit bull owners, who have spent decades trying to dispel the breed’s dangerous reputation, felt that the strapline played to media hysteria and took to the internet to vent their anger. McDonald’s reacted quickly, pulled the ads and apologised to Pit Bull owners – and presumably the dogs themselves – but again negative publicity had spread far beyond than those the original ad was intended to reach generating coverage both sides of the Atlantic.
Conversely, the strapline implies that by being ‘safer than something else’ eating a Chicken McBite isn’t actually safe. McDonald’s has certainly had its fair share of criticism over the health credentials of its meals (or lack of them), most notably via the film Super Size Me, so surely this isn’t a debate it wants to resurrect?
What’s particularly odd is that this flies in the face of all the good work it had done in reputation management here in the UK. It introduced healthy options, such as salads and fruit and listed calories on its menus. This was supported by a series of adverts showing British farmers, the A to Z of McDonald’s which focused on its CSR, environmental credentials and people, and promoting its healthy options and coffee rather than burgers and chips.
So given that McDonald’s clearly can do innovative perception changing advertising, and do it well, I go back to my original question: what on earth were they thinking?