Can Chicken Save McDonald’s?

CNN is running an ad campaign I like quite a bit. Rather than taking a defensive posture against charges of “fake news,” the company goes on the offensive, claiming the high ground of owning the truth. The introductory spot focused on an apple, simply displayed against a white background. The gist of the voice over: “This is an apple. It will always be an apple. You can call it a banana, but it will still be an apple.”

Now, Business Insider reports that McDonald’s Has a Stunning Plan to Change How You Think About McDonald’s Forever.

“What do you think, of when you think of McDonald’s? McDonald’s hopes you’ll start thinking chicken.”

Is this a case of looking at an apple and calling it a banana?

It used to be a burger culture. And for good reason. How great is a juicy burger on a soft bun with a side of fries? Comfort, comfort, comfort. Savory and delicious. Satisfying. Red meat satisfies our most primal urges. Finish it off with a rich, sweet, creamy shake and it’s the perfect meal.

Ray Kroc took the country’s most popular meal from the home kitchens, backyards and lunch counters of America and made it even more accessible. Burgers, fries and shakes on demand were never far away. The burgers were never that good, but they were good enough. The fries and shakes were addictive. It was a winning formula.

Until it wasn’t.

Well, that’s not really fair. To paraphrase Mark Twain, the demise of McDonald’s is greatly exaggerated. The company is still the revenue leader in restaurant chains by far. But McDonald’s is not without its problems, the most critical of which is the degree to which they should embrace or reject its essence: Burger, fries and shakes.

The facts laid out in the Business Insider piece are unassailable. Chicken consumption is growing, beef is declining. Chick-fil-A per store sales are nearly double that of McDonald’s. Of course they have to emphasize chicken!

However, as I am fond of saying: In life, love, politics and marketing, the facts never matter.

Yes, McDonald’s would certainly benefit by improving the quality of its chicken products. But chicken is not in the brand’s DNA. A Bloomberg article on the “Better Chicken” initiative put it this way:

“The idea now is to build on that push and establish McDonald’s as a top-tier chicken restaurant — rather than just a burger joint.”

But McDonald’s is a burger joint. A burger joint that also sells chicken, which is perhaps better now than it was in the past. But still, when you think of McDonald’s you think of burgers and fries, not chicken.

I am a marketing professional who plays music, not a professional musician who dabbles in marketing to get by. I often play in bars and clubs, where expectations are different than the Hollywood Bowl. The audience intuits that I have a day job. Worst case, people ignore me, but no one boos and my performances seem to be appreciated most of the time.

Playing music may be core to my personal identity, but I don’t sell music to my clients. My burger and fries is marketing insights. My extra-curricular music activities may be something that is interesting to know about me and might even suggest that I bring some creativity to my insights work.  But I understand my strengths and weaknesses. I don’t go around telling people I’m a musician with a day job. Doing so would cause everyone I encounter to question my credibility. And sanity.

McDonald’s can’t act like Chick-fil-A anymore than I can act like Eric Clapton. (And from what I hear, Eric Clapton is a terrible focus group moderator.) It seems like McDonald’s has embarked on a decades long effort to run away from who they really are. They play defense, constantly trying to change perceptions by adding new “better for you” and “sophisticated” menu items.

But McDonald’s is a burger joint, which is not a bad thing. Just ask In-N-Out or Shake Shack. You can call it chicken over and over and over again. Some people may even eventually see it as chicken. But it will always be a burger.

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