Pink slime, worms and sunlight: How McDonald's markets transparency

Former MythBuster Grant Imahara is the face of McDonald's new campaign.
Former MythBuster Grant Imahara is the face of McDonald's new campaign.

Despite some obvious risks, the fast-food giant is betting that it can squelch nasty rumors by meeting them head on

McDonald’s has served "billions and billions" of burgers, but its latest advertising campaign might have it feeling like it has an equal number of critics. Fortunately for the fast-food giant, that’s not necessarily a bad thing. In an era of greater transparency, most brands now recognize that having an open conversation with the public can go a long way, even if it hurts a bit.

By addressing its critics head on with its new "Our Food, Your Questions" campaign, McDonald’s hopes to enhance its brand with a consumer base that is more aware than ever of what is being put into its bodies. While McDonald’s already answers these questions on its website, it is taking it further into the social realm and amplifying it through TV.

The restaurant chain has its work cut out for it. When a lot of people are already convinced its food is made out of pink slime and its burgers are infested with worms, taking the battle onto social media to convince them otherwise is risky business. Twitter is not known for being particularly forgiving, but McDonald’s is placing a large bet that millions of people will be more forgiving once they get the campaign’s message.

And McDonald’s knows better than anyone what a social media backfire feels like, after its #McDStories campaign two years ago — which aimed to get people sharing positive stories about its workers — was hijacked by complaints about the restaurant.

A host of other brands have also experienced this backlash, most recently the New York Police Department, with its #myNYPD campaign and pizza brand DiGiorno with its #WhyIStayed faux pas.

Despite the risks, brands are learning the importance of being a part of the conversation, even when it means admitting mistakes, according to Kyle Bunch, global lead for R/GA’s mobile and social platforms.

"There’s going to be a kind of spike bringing it (negative conversation) back to the forefront and putting it in the conversation when it could have just as easily let it disappear quietly," Bunch said.

"But at the same time, this sort of transparency, whatever questions get answered, sends a message that there is a willingness to address questions, to have a dialogue around a company’s product."

While McDonald’s is using the campaign to refute the pink slime and worms rumors, it has conceded some unpleasant truths. For instance, it acknowledged using beef containing hormones. McDonald’s defended its use of hormones, but it’s not a fact that sits well with everyone.

Bunch said that public has a "remarkable capacity" to forgive mistakes, but he warned that if a brand offers transparency, it better deliver. "If brands adopt the air of transparency without genuine transparency, if they’re still holding on to key facts around any given story and concealing it from the public, or even worse, lying, I think there’s going to be a pretty savage response to that."

But this strategy has the potential for brands to establish deeper bonds with consumers, said Joe McCaffrey, planning director and head of social at Huge.

"When I think about the topic of transparency and social, I like to think about celebrities," McCaffrey said. "If you think about what social enables for the end user, relative to celebrities, it allows you to get a step closer.

"You’re not hanging out with them or going to dinner with them, but it lets their fans feel a little bit closer to them and a little bit more in their circle."

He said there is the same opportunity for brands. "All a celebrity has to do is wake up in the morning and tell people what they ate for breakfast and people feel like they know them. It’s similar for brands."

While openness is firmly on the agenda for most brands, it is important they pick their battles carefully, knowing which ones to have and avoid, Bunch said.

"That’ what I think is smart about what McDonald’s is doing. It's opening the line for questions, but very carefully curating which ones they respond to with high production value video, which is obviously going to have a much longer shelf-life than just responding directly to a tweet with a text tweet back."

In an era when people expect personal attention via social media, and it’s easier than ever to dig around to verify or disprove a brand’s claims, both Bunch and McCaffrey expressed confidence many more brands will be going the route McDonald’s has chosen with this campaign. The risk is undeniable, but the reward of building better relationships with individual consumers is too great to ignore.

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