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Would You Like To See How We Make Our Fries With That? Behind McDonald's Big Transparency Play

McDonald’s Canada gambled with a frank question-and-answer-driven social media campaign that has gone on to earn huge publicity and positive reviews. Here, the CMO behind the campaign explains how and why the transparent approach worked.

Is it true that Chuck Norris eats only at McDonald’s? Is there plaster in the milkshakes? What about giraffe meat?

McDonald’s Canada was aware that people were asking these and other much tougher questions about its food online. Rather than ignore the elephant--or in this case, the giraffe in the room--last year, the company decided to confront the online speculation head-on with an interactive digital campaign designed to answer consumers’ questions and dispel myths. In an era when transparency and conversation have become the most aspirational hallmarks of marketing, McDonald’s Canada’s efforts have become one of the most interesting ongoing campaigns of the last while.

Developed by McDonald’s and Tribal DDB Toronto, the "Our Food. Your Questions" initiative launched last May in an effort to create a direct dialogue with McDonald’s Canada’s customers. The social media campaign invited Canadian consumers to ask questions on McDonald’s website, Twitter, and Facebook. (Don’t try to submit a question unless you are in Canada. The site doesn’t recognize non-Canadian IP addresses.)

Answers appear online and some of them have been turned into videos that provide in-depth illustrations of the reality of McDonald’s food sourcing, ingredients, prep, and advertising. The videos have earned global media attention. The first big attention-getter of the campaign addressed the question of why a burger you buy at McDonald’s looks different than the one you see in the company’s ads, and provided a behind-the-scenes look at a beef-based photo shoot. A cooking show-style video featuring McDonald’s Canada’s executive chef Dan Coudreaut demystified (to some degree) the ingredients in the Big Mac’s special sauce. The latest video takes a farm-to-fryer look at how McDonald’s Canada makes its world famous fries.

"There was a lot of discussion taking place in the digital landscape," says Joel Yashinsky, chief marketing officer, McDonald’s Canada. "There were myths, misinformation, and rumors about our brand, particularly about our food. Yashinsky says while the chain had devoted much effort to reimagining the restaurant experience--with the introduction of McCafes, free Wi-Fi, and the like--there were still questions and comments swirling around the food itself. "We weren’t part of that narrative," he says. "We needed to get involved in a dialogue with our customers, particularly online."

Since the campaign began, McDonald’s Canada has fielded more than 14,000 questions and responded with text on the website, photos, and the YouTube videos, which have earned millions of views. There are currently 7,100 questions and answers live on the site.

Yashinsky says that all questions flow through a "conversation center," an offsite social media team that can handle the more basic queries on the spot. Questions that require more information on food and ingredients are leveled up to McDonald’s quality assurance team, which can in turn bring in intel from various sectors of the company and food suppliers.

Past questions have run from practical ("What burger has the most calories?" Smoky BBQ Angus Third Pounder with a whopping 830 calories) to absurd ("Do hamburgers grow in a burger patch and love to be eaten?" Answer is here), with many falling into the urban legends category ("Is it true that there is more sugar in your salads than in your sundaes?" Not true.)

The key was getting not just the answers and the conversation’s tone right. "We didn’t want to come across as overbearing and hitting people over the head with facts. So we took a friendly and fun approach," says Yashinsky.

But many marketers--including McDonald’s--can tell stories of open social media campaigns that end up not being very fun at all. However, Yashinsky says the team went into the campaign with a lot of confidence. "The important part of this effort was the fact hat we had to be transparent and open; we had to show some vulnerability. Of course some of the answers may make us a bit uncomfortable--like discussing how it takes us four hours to shoot a Big Mac--but we also know our consumers are smart. We were very confident. We’re comfortable in the fact that we are proud of what we serve and we had to bring that sort of confidence to this." As for the inevitable unpleasant questions, Yashinsky says "those were out in the digital world before we started this. We didn’t start this to answer just the softball questions. It’s some of the other rumors that we wanted to address. We wanted to provide information and have a conversation that resonates with people."

Late last month, McDonald’s Canada expanded the initiative with a mass media campaign including TV spots, digital takeovers, wild postings, full motion video projections, and station dominations in key markets around Canada.

The campaign has been so successful that Yashinsky says "this will be a platform for us that will live forever and continue to evolve." There have already been queries from McDonald’s in other countries around the world who are interested in developing similar campaigns.

Yashinsky’s favorite question? "If Batman came to McDonald’s, what would he order?" The answer? "Justice. (With a side of our World Famous Fries.)"

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7 Comments

  • Dave

    Seems like a great strategy. And good to hear that it "has gone on to earn huge publicity and positive reviews." But... last month MacDonald's saw it's first sales drop in almost a decade.

    http://www.myfoxny.com/story/2...

    No doubt the economy was bigger factor than mere marketing, but still.  Reminds me of CP+B's work for Burger King for so long. They definitely got "huge publicity and positive reviews,"  but in all the years they had the account they didn't improve BK's market share one bit.

  • Mega-pixels

    I dont know why yall watch the video...you should have stop with the title when they got to the word "make". The last time I check you grow patatoes. So, mac admits they make their frys.

  • JarkProngo

    I'm sure it's just a tiny editing thing, but if you notice in the first video at 2min20sec they overdubbed "a dextrose solution" over whatever the guy actually said.  

  • Paco Hurtado

    It's incredible they don't allow people to make comments on the videos... Disgusting... By the way... Do you know the amount of salt you should take in a daily balanced diet? Just check on Google... Only one Medium menu contains too much sodium to aaaallll day long! Check http://www.mayoclinic.com/heal... 

  • Matthew Watson

    Of course Mcdonalds isn't healthy, but what 'fast food' restaurant is? Mcdonalds do not market themselves as a 'healthy option' so why should people criticize them as if they do. Subway should be more in the limelight than Mcdonalds for their marketing slogans.
    I believe some transparency is better than none, they have released their responses to the large majority of the hard hitting questions. They are still a brand that cannot leave themselves completely open to social media attacks that they would receive if the comments were made open for the public.
    Brands like Burger King and Pizza Hut do not receive a percentage of the criticism this brand receives, yet how are they different in their product offering or marketing strategy?

  • Ben Therrien

    It's a transparency program based on user submitted questions, yet the comments on the videos have been disabled.

    Translation: We'll carefully select your questions and choreograph our answers/transparency, but we're not interested in any potentially difficult follow up questions.

    A for the idea.
    C+ for the execution/follow through.   
       

  • kpr

    Part of me agrees with this response. But the other part asks, "Is some transparency better than none?" 

    It's McDonald's. There's no way they'd have been able to pull this off with complete transparency. They'd get eaten alive. They answered some questions with reasonable answers. They haven't made me feel like they're working with Alice Waters but they've at least told me a few things that make me think McDonald's isn't quite as evil as many believe.