McDonald's and the honest approach to fast food

McDonald's: 'Our food. Your question'. Can brand transparency be at the heart of an engaging and effective case study? The IPA thinks so.

Why should you care about this case?
"Transparency," Starbucks chief executive Howard Schultz says, "is the currency of leadership". If true, that would relegate banks, energy providers and price-comparison companies down the ranks, as mis-selling, opaque pricing and conflicts of interest have dogged those sectors.

Overall trust in business declined last year in 16 of the 27 countries polled by the 2015 Edelman Trust Barometer.

However, transparency initiatives that are both genuinely informative and engaging are rare.

The 'Our Food. Your Questions' platform, developed in Canada by Tribal Worldwide for McDonald’s, answered more than 20,000 questions in six months about the fast-food chain and its operations.

These did not include "Can you make transparency personalised, creative and sufficiently flexible for a global brand?" The evidence from the Your Questions case study suggests that the answer is, you can.

What did the brand do?
Despite consistently advertising about its food quality, McDonald’s Canada had lower food-quality perception scores than its main rivals, and myths about its products and practices were widespread.

Rather than trying to "say something new", McDonald’s invited consumers to ask anything they wanted, and vowed to give them full and speedy replies.

It theorised that each answer would provide a personal connection to the brand, proof it was listening and a piece of social-ready content helping to displace negative online chat.

Central to this approach was a ‘socially-powered FAQ’ website with consumers connecting via Twitter and Facebook so both questions and answers were shared with users’ own networks.

A 10-person response team was created to answer queries such as "Why doesn’t your food look like it does in advertising?", "Is there Pink Goop in the Chicken McNuggets?" and "Is there a company called 100% pure beef?"

The replies used text, image or video formats, for varied impact, and an upbeat, primary-coloured style.

The most provoc­ative questions were reproduced in online banners, outdoor media and TV spots to grab consumers’ attention and encourage them to find, follow, share and ask questions online. campaign

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Did it work?

  • One-year target for questions exceeded by 400% in six months
  • 10 million interactions online, with engagement of over four minutes per visit (+18% on category average)
  • Food perception and brand measures improved
  • Monthly store visits grew by 50%

These results are for 1 July 2012 to 31 December 2012, compared with 1 January 2011 to 30 June 2012. The Questions platforms were later launched in other markets including North America and Australia.

What else do we want to know?
Is "radical transparency" an enduring brand idea, or a one-off shift in policy that would deliver diminishing returns over time? Tracking results over extended periods or comparing data from several markets, as IPA Effectiveness Awards entries often do, would help to address these doubts.

In addition, McDonald’s says it was aiming at the 60% of the market comprising occasional diners with some doubts about the brand. But by allowing anyone to ask a question, including die-hard critics, it could have started conversations with irrelevant targets.

Compare this with a First Direct campaign that won an IPA Effectiveness Award in 2011.

The bank aimed to get non-customers – specific­ally, demanding "service challengers" – to reconsider their banking arrange­ments by publishing the live, uncen­sored, largely positive comments that First Direct customers were tweeting.

In the McDonald’s example, it would be good to know which audiences were most engaged, and understand the advan­tages of this broad approach, as opposed to more specific targeting.

Finally, one assumes that McDonald’s costs would fall once it had invested in creating a bank of answers. It would be good to see a longer-term estimated campaign payback.

The McDonald’s case demonstrates how to create a bold, comprehensive, well-produced and effective vehicle for transparency. Submitting it to the 2016 IPA Effectiveness Awards could super-size that learning.

Learnings unpacked

  • Grab attention, highlight controversial questions
  • Have the resources to answer questions fast and in full
  • Make the questioning process social
  • Vary formats used to show, tell or perform answers

Carlos Grande ( is the effectiveness editor of the IPA, formerly of the Financial Times and Warc

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