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Why McDonald's dumped product to rekindle customer ‘lovin’

McDonald’s decision to refresh rather than revolutionise the love in its long-running ‘I’m lovin it” mantra signals a marketing switch from product to customer that could reignite sales growth.

The restaurant has lost market share to fast casual brands such as Nando’s and Subway over the last two years but believes it now has the recipe needed to restore that loving feeling. Positivity is McDonald’s key ingredient and just like Coke’s Happiness and Cadbury’s Joy it is now playing on the lighter side of life – moments of freedom or indulgence.

A feel-good tone seeps through the brand’s “Choose Lovin” advert, which has subtle nods to online culture in the form of famous unlikely pairs - such as Batman and the Joker - befriending one another. The concept speaks to McDonald’s admission that it has its “haters” as it promises to woo lapsed customers through more positive experiences.

McDonald’s chief marketing officer Deborah Wahl summed up the strategy as a shift from a “philosophy of billions served to billions heard”. People first rather than product separates the philosophy from prior efforts that pulled the restaurant’s menu into too many unprofitable areas.

Plans are already underway to pare down menu items and work with less unnecessary ingredients, effectively giving customers a simpler and less processed selection. It suggests McDonald’s has wised up to how it tackles ongoing quality issues around its food without making any outlandish promises or furthering the idea of it having a quality issue at all.

Rather than claim it will start or stop using certain ingredients, a new ad for its Egg McMuffin simply emphasises that it uses real eggs, and always has. There is no mention of free-range eggs or organic farms and the creative is framed to show that McDonald’s food is freshly made from real ingredients.

Industry experts believe McDonald’s is right to dial up the positivity and emotional core of the brand. However, it needs to be clear on how the concept of love translates into the bigger consumer battle for healthier lifestyles - from experiential activities to product reformulation - they warned.

Elizabeth Friend, senior foodservice analyst at Euromonitor, said: “For this to succeed, of course it will need to be followed up with real change at the individual outlet level, and McDonald’s is far from out of the woods. That said, this is a good first step toward turning things around. They’re going back to basics, improving the brand from the inside out without resorting to gimmicks, discounts, or new menu items, and I think they’re on the right track.

Changes therefore should match locations and the business is building its social media offering around reacting to those specific demands. In the US, the company has rolled out 14,500 Facebook pages to keep a closer eye on customer conversations about local restaurants.

Aly Richards, chief executive of marketing consultancy The Intelligent Marketing Institute, which works with brands on consumer engagement strategies, said McDonald’s has to use these learnings to adapt to a younger generation becoming better educated about food.

Comparing the Big Mac to Greek yoghurt - like it has done in new ads - is not going to shift thinking towards the brand, Richards argued.

“A seismic shift is coming as people are becoming better educated about food. There is the potential that 'junk' food will go the way of smoking with regard to all the current health pressures in the media, from health experts and the Government. No amount of 'love' will curb that decline on their bottom line. Rather than just reinvention of the brand McDonald's is going to have to reconsider the product as well."

McDonald’s refresh is reflective of the marketing changes it has made internally over the past year. In the US, it leaned marketing toward customer groups and away from products, while globally it is leveraging digital in several ways, spanning mobile click-and-collect apps and self-order touchscreens in-stores.

Emily St. Clair-Johnson, senior consultant at Brand Union, said: “There’s a need to get the messages tonally right and motivating for millennials to make sure they hear them.

“McDonald’s is never going to be a health food and no one expects it to be but they will need to address what they are doing to help consumers make more positive choices in order to show their ‘lovin’ feeling goes more than skin deep.”

The company has been reporting two per cent average growth in revenues over the last two years, with a significant drop in comparable store sales. As it struggles to get back on top, McDonald’s brand update is under pressure to be felt by consumers and not just heard.