McDonald’s Real Life Choices
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Holmes Report

McDonald’s Real Life Choices

Local McDonald’s owners were facing tough times: sales were on the decline and recent obesity lawsuits had consumers and media scrutinizing the quick service restaurant (QSR) industry and the “unhealthiness” of fast food.

Paul Holmes

MWW, agency of record for McDonald’s NY Tri-State Restaurants, was charged to develop a program that supported sales of McDonald’s core menu. Local McDonald’s owners were facing tough times: sales were on the decline and recent obesity lawsuits had consumers and media scrutinizing the quick service restaurant (QSR) industry and the “unhealthiness” of fast food. McDonald’s, as brand leader, was at the center of every debate. Further, the low carb trend and diets such as Atkins, Weight Watchers, The South Beach Diet, etc. were at the forefront of the weight loss craze.

MWW’s challenge was to create a positive PR program in a media environment where negative press on how fast food “is making consumers fat” and special interest groups attacking the QSR industry were changing how consumers thought about eating at McDonald’s.

What were health-conscious and diet conscious consumers ordering at McDonald’s? What were the recent diet and nutrition trends? What were other QSRs doing? What was the news environment surrounding QSRs in relation to nutrition? What were health organizations saying about QSRs? These were the questions MWW had to find the answers to before creating a program that would achieve the objectives set forth.

Primary and secondary research included: interviews with nutritionists and industry research to determine weight loss and diet trends, reporter interviews and media audits to determine news coverage of the QSR industry in relation to “diet & nutrition” and focus groups and one-on-one interviews with McDonald’s owners, store managers and Crew to determine purchase trends associated with diet and nutrition

Regardless of all the diets plans out there, our research showed us that at the heart of every weight loss system is the necessity to cut calories, carbohydrates or fat – each is looked to as the key to successful weight loss or health-conscious eating lifestyle. In addition, several weight loss systems already included information on how customers could eat on the go and still follow their diet. Reporters were interested in QSR initiatives, but we learned that the majority of coverage skewed slightly negative due to recent medical studies, lawsuits and the like.

Stories on “healthier fare” items at QSRs such as salads, wraps or flatbread sandwiches praised restaurants for offering more choices but were quick to point out “healthier” did not necessarily equal low calorie or low fat. Media were leery of QSR programs and products that positioned the restaurant as being “healthy.” Through speaking with McDonald’s owners, managers and Crew, we learned customers were already customizing their orders with such requests as “hold the mayo” or “hold the bun” depending on their individual preference. Special request orders like these were easy to fulfill as part of the McDonald’s Made For You system.

MWW did extensive research and had several meetings with both Weight Watchers and Atkins for partnership possibilities, but each brand wanted expensive licensing fees, portion of sales and a lot of time to create exclusive products. Partnering with a weight loss brand to create a “diet McDonald’s product” did not fit the original objectives of the program, which were to promote McDonald’s core menu items.

Therefore, MWW decided to develop a proprietary McDonald’s branded initiative that showcased how existing menu items could fit into consumers’ diets no matter what diet they were on. MWW employed renowned author and nutritionist Pam Smith, R.D., to categorize McDonald’s menu items and talk about the “choices” available at McDonald’s no matter what customers’ lifestyles or diet preferences ... whether they’re watching carbs, fat or calories. Through the McDonald’s Real Life Choices initiative, MWW’s goal was to create a program to show consumers how to enjoy the McDonald’s food they love, without compromising their diets.

A carefully crafted media strategy was critical for the success of the McDonald’s Real Life Choices initiative; there would be no advertising support for this program so consumer awareness had to be generated through news coverage. Additionally, MWW needed to ensure that the McDonald’s NY Tri-State area owner/operators received proper credit for developing McDonald’s Real Life Choices by media messages saying that the program was “exclusive to the New York Tri-State area.” Publicity activities needed to contain positive messaging and generate widespread exposure to achieve the objectives.

MWW’s original plan was to execute a massive publicity blitz to capitalize on January media window when reporters were most interested in “diet stories.” The agency’s angle: “Think Your New Year’s Resolution Means You Can’t Eat Your Favorite Fast Food? McDonald’s Real Life Choices Says You Can.” However, a new media window began to surface with industry reports hinting that by QSR competitors, including Subway and Burger King, were working on “nutrition initiatives.” Also, there were more stories in the news about customers and health organizations demanding more nutrition information to help them make educated choices.  

Therefore, MWW decided upon a two-prong media strategy. 1) Pre-announce the January 5th launch of the program to the media during Holiday 2003 and 2) Begin pitching McDonald’s Real Life Choices to the media in conjunction with the January 5th in-store rollout.

MWW first leveraged the Associated Press’ influence to tell the McDonald’s Real Life Choices story. For the program announcement, MWW turned to AP for an exclusive to spark a wave of local and national publicity. AP set the tone for how other media talked about the program and the coverage featured a photo of McDonald’s Real Life Choices’ menu and the Big Mac “undressed.” AP included key messages from McDonald’s local marketing manager and spokesperson Pam Smith. “People don’t go to McDonald’s looking for diet food,” said Smith, “but what Real Life Choices does is it gives them a chance to have food that will fit within their diet but still with that flavor that they’re seeking.” (AP)

Additional stories about Real Life Choices were pitched throughout the year to coincide with key McDonald’s product and marketing announcements, such as: Fiesta Salad, Go Active! Happy Meal for adults, partnership with celebrity fitness trainer Bob Greene and new Happy Meal choices (milk jugs and Apple Dippers).

MWW executed the following tactics to ensure a successful in-store execution/communication to customers: meetings with McDonald’s IT personnel to create special keys on the cash registers, twenty-five (25) training seminars with operations managers, field consultants and store managers to prepare the entire McDonald’s system to be able to implement Real Life Choices in the restaurants meetings with food/restaurant operations to create a new housing for low carb/no bun orders and in addition to posters and bilingual brochures, MWW convinced McDonald’s to redirect marketing funds to pay for table tents, register toppers, menu translites, drive-thru signs, stickers and bilingual crew room poster.

Although a regional program, news on McDonald’s Real Life Choices appeared in virtually every media outlet in the U.S. with 966,677,159 media impressions and 120 minutes of broadcast publicity and postings on 210 news websites, resulting in an ad value of almost $12,500,000! More importantly, McDonald’s Real Life Choices set the bar for the QSR industry by starting a “healthy menu” trend that other QSRs have followed. The program is also helping to change the way in which people view the McDonald’s brand. Core menu sales have spiked and McDonald’s is experiencing an increase in special request orders such as “hold the bun” and “hold the mayo.”

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