McDonald's: 'We knew we couldn't market our way out of Super Size Me'

Tesco Bank's Benny Higgins, McDonald's' Alistair Macrow, Johnny Hornby of The&Partnerhsip and Crystal Palace chairman Steve Parish came to together this week to discuss how brands must build trust in 2014.

McDonald's knew it could not market it's way out of the fallout from Super Size Me
McDonald's knew it could not market it's way out of the fallout from Super Size Me

Alistair Macrow, senior vice president marketing of McDonald’s, told the audience at the Oystercatchers Club event this week that its customers have twice as much trust in McDonald’s as they did seven years ago.

It was 10 years ago that Morgan Spurlock’s "Super Size Me" film came out, in which he only ate McDonald’s food for 30 days. Macrow admitted that it had a serious impact on its key audience.

"The film put all the headlines about what was wrong with McDonald’s in one place. That was a big moment for us in the UK.

"We said, ‘Actually, we were not doing this right. We can’t market our way out of this; it’s about fundamental change’."

He said that the hardest thing for any business to do was to change when things were going alright. "It will be even harder when things have gone off the boil. But invest now, take that hit, rather than waiting til you’re at the bottom of the pit and there’s only one way to go."

Unfortunately when most CEOs tweet it’s the most boring shit you’ve heard in your life

Benny Higgins, chief executive of Tesco Bank, dropped the name of his "good mate" Alistair Darling, whom he said told him that the Labour Party "lost it in 2005 but just didn’t know it then".

"The same is true in business. When they are succeeding they are often blinded by the fact that they think every single thing they are doing is successful. They don’t realise that it’s not until too late."

Higgins said the culture of trust is itself determined by the leadership. "When the banks fail on trust, then that is a failure in leadership."

" Oscar Wyle once said, ‘Be yourself because everybody else is taken’. I’m not a fan of pretending I’m doing something I’m not. So if I’m writing the blog, then it’s me writing the blog.

"The most important part of leadership is authenticity; be yourself, it’s your best chance."

Tweeting with authenticity

Higgins, who does not tweet, said that this should only be done by CEOs who have something to say, and consistently. "Unfortunately when most CEOs tweet it’s the most boring shit you’ve heard in your life. They don’t have enough to say. I would send some terrible tweets.  I have to be careful and remember that our customers don’t care that much about me. The best thing that I can do for them is run the business."

Acknowledging the trust challenge of being a bank in today’s economic  environment, Higgins said that organisational changes were vital.

It cost us about £40,000, but who cares? What a £40,000. We put customers before the P&L

"As soon as we took full control of our bank [from RBS], we removed all sales targets and sales incentives from the staff. I think it’s a corrosive and bad place and was what sat behind PPI and mis-selling. It means managers have to work a lot harder to manage people, but it also makes it a much more hospitable place to work."

Higgins also discussed an initiative a few years ago where Tesco sent £500 of free grocery vouchers to people who had lost their homes. "People who received them didn’t believe it. But this was about putting customers before the P&L. It cost us about £40,000, but who cares? What a £40,000."

Help me build trust

The issue of trust comes up a lot in pitches, said Johnny Hornby, founder of The&Partnership, who explained that since 2009, he is often asked the question, "How can you help us rebuild trust?".

"Some people say it’s about social media and having more conversations. But the fundamental answer is to behave in a trustworthy manner. Doing the things that earned you the trust in the first place.

"Then from that point, it’s not about what you say, but what you do – whether that’s taking chocolate away from the checkout or something else. It’s about doing things that make customers trust you – and brands showing that they trust customers. Do things that are generous to your customers.

"An organisation must change to show that it deserves to be trusted. Only then is it advertising’s job to point to that," said Hornby.

When McDonald’s started selling salads, customers said it was not authentic - we are capable of policing ourselves, thank you very much

Consumers will see through your act

The most important word in the debate for Steve Parish, chairman of Crystal Palace Football Club, was "authenticity".

"That’s what it’s all about. You start at the product, then work back. You can’t act it, or pretend it, you’ll get caught out.

"When McDonald’s started selling salads, customers said, ‘That’s not authentic; we are capable of policing ourselves, thank you very much’."

Parish added: "It’s logical to me to tell people what you’re doing and what you’re hoping to do. For some businesses that’s an education."

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