Incite by Design

Caustic visions and shared thoughts on design, marketing, creativity, philanthropy, pop culture and business philosophy by Toronto design firm, Ricksticks Inc.

2005-01-29

Those Tarnished, Indistinguishable Arches

When I came across today's Fast Company post on Ronald McDonald's new stint as promoter of all things aerobic, I was really intrigued.

"So Ronald McDonald got promoted. He's now Chief Happiness Officer at McDonald's. Congrats, Ronnie! What a well-deserved promotion. And overdue too.

But this isn't some deal where he's been kicked upstairs to make balloon animals all day; his job duties have changed as well. Ronald's going to be going into schools to promote the joys of physical activity.

The timing of this news is curious, coming just a couple of days after that tobacco-style lawsuit against McDonald's was revived by a New York state appeals court. And as much as McDonald's wants to say that Ronald won't be talking burgers and fries in any appearances, his mere appearance certainly brings Big Macs to mind more than say, fruit. "

I really intrigued by this, yes, but more by David's question:

"... if you had to design a campaign that exuded more ... let's say ... sincerity, what would you do? If you're McDonald's, how do you get out of this box?"

We spend a great deal of time vehemently discussing the nefarious qualities of fast food and soft drinks, but if you - and I mean you - were the founder or CEO of a business that made its fortune selling these products, how would you deal with a society that no longer can tolerate (for health or philosophical reasons) your products in the quantities you are accustomed to selling?

There are some obvious answers here, none of them I presume to be easy or cheap.

1. You could offer something else (something that won't be as likely to inspire liability)
2. You could continue selling the core products but limit your liability by offering "healthy" alternatives and band-aid solutions to show you've changed your proverbial ways
3. You continue to go on doing exactly what you are doing and hope to absorb the cost of impending suits

Obviously, the second choice is the palpable one and is the way most fast food, tobacco, and other criticized industries have handled their previous wrongs.

So let's say you're McDonalds and you've chosen door #2 - In doing this you have admitted that "yes" your business has made its money in ways that have promoted unhealthy eating habits - or, if you aren't ready to admit this, then you confess that your product is not good in amounts qualified as unhealthy by the medical industry.

You've just admitted something big, bad, and ugly. Now what? You're still selling the products that are creating a nation of fat people. Do you mean to say you sincerely believe your company cares about health and fitness? How do you fit that into your mandate? Okay Ron, you're up to bat. You are only a hamburger loving' clown, but hey, now you are also a professional nutritionist. What else can we pull out of the bag?

The sad problem with corporate accountability is in the botched rebranding strategies taken - mostly around the issue of sincerity. If Ronald is saying "eat your carrots," that's not Ronald. That is not fun. And McDonalds is supposed to be fun.

I remember the Sunday meals at the Golden Arches with my grandparents. This didn't occur every Sunday; It was treat. It was a place, in retrospect, of reward - likely for our good behaviour sitting through a insufferably long sermon. We grew up with an associated fondness for McDonalds - mainly because it wasn't a dietary staple for us, but a treat. Like puppy dogs and parades, the Golden Arches is emblazoned in my mind as a part of childhood.

I cannot imagine what McDonalds is going through trying to reconfigure their place in society; the meaning of a brand that is tarnished with law suits and bad press.

This makes me sound very sympathetic. I am not. But I do wonder what any one of us would do if we were running an empire once angelic - turned - demonic and had to make the choice to stop what we've been doing for years.

Call me crazy, but I definitely feel like a lot of people associate McDonalds with the comforts of a simpler America. And the disillusionment with McDonalds is in correlation with all that once was the America of childhood.


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