Wednesday, February 10th, 2010...1:30 am

If I were Ronald McDonald…

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I would change the world.

I would do this by turning every one of McDonald’s 31,000+ worldwide restaurants into food centers that promote and embrace health, education and the environment. Those are three of the most challenging issues facing society today. They are causes that will become increasingly damaging in future generations if they are not solved in this generation. Believe it or not, but McDonald’s is in the best position (more so than any government, charity or sitting President) to be able to accomplish positive change.

You might think I’m lost in the Barbeque Sauce (the best BBQ sauce in the entire world I might add). So hear me out.

McDonald’s does a better job of reaching and engaging a mass audience than any media company, news organization or communication company in the world. It serves 47 million customers (half the audience of the Super Bowl) EVERY DAY. McDonald’s is located in 119 different countries. People everywhere understand what the golden arches represent – a tasty, affordable and quick meal. McDonald’s is one of the most recognizable brands across the globe and its products (Big Mac, McNuggets, Happy Meal) are almost as well known. The point here is that when McDonald’s does something, everybody, in all corners of the world, receives the message and comprehends it in a similar way.

The obvious place to start is with health. I would change the entire menu to focus on nutrition and healthy eating habits. I’d phase out all fried foods, milk shakes, and desserts. Replace French Fries with baked potato strips. Apple Pies with Apples. Bacon, Egg and Cheese Biscuit with egg white omelets. Stress fresh foods, fruits and vegetables and a balanced diet and focus on portion control. McDonald’s has such a great influence over society’s diet that these simple changes can sway children to grow up eating healthy and shun bad foods as they now do for cigarettes.

Next, I’d focus on education, especially for youth. Nutrition is obviously a natural topic but I’d also use McDonald’s to hold classes on enrichment or extra curricular activities for children, mothers and employment training. All McDonald’s should offer free internet access, a study section (similar to Starbucks) and perhaps even a low-cost computer station. Students with good grades would receive gift cards, discounts and special status at their local McDonald’s.

Finally, I’d make sure that each McDonald’s renovated their facility to adhere to the highest standards for energy efficiency. This would include carbon neutral locations, emphasis on using recycled materials, and obtaining food supplies from eco-friendly farmers and producers. McDonald’s would be an example of a green business and promote a green lifestyle.

These three simple movements would be more powerful, and precipitate greater change than any government policy, foundation or public initiative. Yup, it would make the world a better place.

You’re thinking this is impossible. You might be right. There are more obstacles than in the Eliminator on American Gladiators. Fresh, wholesome food would be too costly. Carbon neutral facilities are an expensive investment. Nobody would want to eat healthy food, especially at McDonald’s! People would just go to Burger King, Taco Bell or other fast food restaurants. Franchise owners would revolt. Shareholders would revolt. Etc, etc, etc.

I realize it might not be all peaches and (non-fat) cream to make this happen. It’s not easy to change the world. Especially if you’re a global corporation. Nobody expects you to do any good (Just don’t do anything absolutely horrible) besides making tons of money. McDonald’s made $22.8 billion last year, and they damn well better beat that this year if they want to be deemed successful.

But there are some trends and ideas that I believe can make the possibility of something like this happening more realistic. If you don’t believe me, believer Umair Haque. He’s to technology + business in today’s, or maybe even tomorrow’s, world what Dostoyevsky was to stories + themes. Haque argues that companies need to go from great (highly profitable) to good (virtuous to society). Check out the post here.

First, if executed correctly this would be the most genuine and authentic marketing initiative in the entire world. Authenticity is hot right now (although if you watched the Super Bowl commercials, you probably think that “lame” is hot right now). Pepsi passed up on Super Bowl ads this year to focus its entire marketing push around Project Refresh. At the end of the day they though, they are still just selling flavored, carbonated and caffeinated beverages. Does anybody really believe that Pepsi drinks refresh the world (as they claim in their commercials?). With that kind of boasting, there philanthropic efforts only go so far. If people really believed McDonald’s was foregoing profits to improve society they would rally around a genuine cause and shift the paradigm in brand marketing.

Thinking economically, these long run initiatives really would ensure that McDonald’s would be a profitable cornerstone of society. Efficient infrastructure would save on energy costs. Enabling restaurants to be learning centers would solidify them as local community establishments. Healthy food would promote eating at McDonald’s more often. Recycled products would save on paper costs. Haque argues that great companies that aren’t concerned with doing good will no longer be great in the next decade.

Without fully thinking this through, I’m going to propose that these initiatives should be subsidized by local and national governments through subsidies and tax breaks. It would be an effective means to generate impactful change in health, education and environment. Can you name one government initiative or public policy that could be more effective? McDonald’s would truly be a public-private partnership. I’m not trying to be political here but maybe I am doing just that. I also realize that the shades of gray in this idea can cover the Seattle skyline. How can we be sure that a franchise will not try and cheat the system by collecting the subsidy without doing the greater good? How can we trust McDonald’s? Does it make sense to regulate McDonald’s like we do for the railroads, airways and electrical companies?

Obviously this is more of a thought exercise than it is a prediction of how McDonald’s is going to refine their brand strategy. But how long can we watch worthless Super Bowls ads before we demand more from a brand for us to find value in it. Yes, a quality product will always be important. But a brand is more than a product. A brand message that shouts “buy, buy, buy” just doesn’t work anymore. We are too smart and too immune to the marketing tactics of the past. As a consumer, I’m ready for the marketing of the future. I’m not exactly sure of what that is, but it better be real.

Here’s a video of Eddie Murphy talkin’ MickeyD’s…


  • Kevin Marshall

    Except that McDonalds is in the business of selling 'fast food' and while all of this would be great, it would completely change the core of their business (not something a large, established, and successful brand/business should ever really do).

    But I do give you +1 for the momma's burger video…that's an all time great! :-)

  • littty

    One of the thoughts that led to this post is why does 'fast food' have to be so damn unhealthy. At some point that is going to hurt McDonald's more than it helps them (financially). Sure, you can argue that they are performing as well as ever and it hasn't effected them yet. I'm betting that it's NOT a sustainable strategy and believe they should enact change before there arm is twisted. That way they lead a movement instead of lagging behind.

  • Kevin Marshall

    I agree it's not a sustainable strategy, but there's also a point at which you should let the brand die (… ) — someone else recently posted about how companies like Microsoft should focus on the desktop and generating returns for investors instead of trying so hard to adopt (can't remember/find the specific post now, but it made a really good argument for not changing your core business in hopes of staying competative).

    I also think that there are other companies out there that are trying to position themselves as the 'healthy fast food' company…subway was doing for awhile but seems to have dropped it a bit lately (though you could argue it was the single reason they grew into a powerhouse at all)…Boston Market was also a good fit for this niche but they never seemed to catch on for some reason (probably because Americans still value convenience/taste over healthy for the time being)…

    But yeah – good/interesting things to think about…