Why McDonald’s bare-bones marketing approach works

Rather than putting dollars into production bells and whistles, McDonald’s Canada aims for simple, honest content

Rather than putting dollars into production bells and whistles, McDonald’s Canada aims for simple, honest content that squashes food myths for a curious—and often critical—public. Here’s why it’s working.

Unless your summer vacation included a remote island with no wifi, it was hard to miss a video from McDonald’s that dissected the photo styling process around shooting a quarter pounder for an ad. At no point does McDonald’s apologize for the way its burgers look when served in restaurants; it’s just an honest explanation of why they look different in ads. That video generated millions of views, but is just one small part of a much bigger campaign.

Developed by McDonald’s Canada in partnership with Tribal DDB Toronto, the “Our Food. Your Questions” digital platform allows the public to ask questions about the company’s food and how it’s made. It’s an attempt to bust myths around the food in a transparent way, and it’s left other brands and agencies marveling at its simple—and somewhat brave—approach since it launched in June.

During September’s Content Marketing World 2012 conference in Ohio, swimming-pool-company-founder-turned-inbound-marketing-guru Marcus Sheridan praised the program in his keynote. Ron Tite, president of Toronto-based content marketing agency The Tite Group, was at the event and says there was a lot of buzz about this made-in-Canada phenomenon.

Why is it getting so much hype? “This is as close to a homerun as you can get in content marketing,” says Tite. “It provides information for the consumer, it solves a key brand challenge and it does both those things in a really transparent, authentic and compelling way.”

The campaign lives at McDonalds.ca/YourQuestions where visitors can submit questions after logging in through their Facebook or Twitter account. Queries have ranged from sincere (“Why do you not have vegetarian burgers?”) to scathing (“Is it really anti-vomisure in your food?”) to, well, kind of absurd (“How big are your potatoes?”). Each question gets a personalized answer­—most are written replies, some also incorporate a photo and of course there are the videos.

Answering every query is really pivotal to the platform, says Louis-Philippe Tremblay, creative director at Tribal DDB Toronto. “This is really about having a conversation.”

It’s also about sharing. Visitors can share questions and answers from the site with their social networks. Tremblay points out that people can click on thumbnails of people who’ve asked questions, proving “it’s not a user-generated campaign where you see it’s all agency people; they’re all real and you can check their Facebook.”

The results of this approach are astounding. Canadians have posed more than 5,500 questions (the nasty or off-topic ones aren’t posted, but still get replies) and the site has created more than 2.9 million interactions. Users are spending an average of nearly five minutes engaging with the site finding out at what age McDonald’s beef cattle are slaughtered and why it uses the ingredient dimethylpolysiloxane.

On one hand, it seems like a risky move for McDonald’s to expose itself to potential criticism given how often it gets heat about its food from consumers. But that’s the brilliant part. As Tite says, “I don’t think they set themselves up at all. How does a skeptic respond to [transparent answers] other than ‘Okay, you proved me wrong’?” After all, it’s hard to tear a strip off a brand when it’s opened itself up with an honest approach.

The plan is to sustain the program indefinitely, says Joel Yashinsky, SVP and chief marketing officer at McDonald’s Canada, adding that there are still ways for McDonald’s Canada to broaden awareness of it. It’s being evolved in a way that’s true to the platform and should “build the opportunity for more customers to engage with us more directly,” he says.

Are the company’s global partners itching to roll out the program elsewhere? Yashinsky will only say McDonald’s Canada is having a lot of discussions with them.

So what’s the, umm, secret sauce that made the program a standout success? Tremblay says preparation was key. His team spent months searching for myths related to McDonald’s food online to see if they could pinpoint the “moment of conversion” when people started believing the myths so that they could try and figure out how it got to that point. They built what Tremblay calls “a database of knowledge” so that the 10-person social media response team was armed ahead of time. The response team also had two weeks of training just prior to the campaign launch.

Tribal DDB Toronto also did a casual pre-survey on McDonald’s Canada’s website to ask consumers if they had questions about the company’s food to gauge the volume of questions.

Tite also credits the simplicity of the execution. Rather than take the path many big brands do by “throwing a bunch of money at production” and hiring actors, McDonald’s made the content itself the priority.

Yashinsky agrees that part of what makes the program work is that “the effort we’re putting forward is not to gloss and provide this really sharp-looking campaign; this is really a platform that is going to evolve for us.”

“That low level of production made their messaging much more authentic,” says Tite. “These are real people answering real questions in a really honest way.” And that is how you satisfy consumers hungry for the truth.

This article originally appeared in the Oct. 8 issue of Marketing.

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