Saturday, December 26, 2009

Corporate Literature: I'm Lovin' It

I don't eat fast food often, but when I do, I am usually alone and I always eat inside the restaurant (I literally never use drive-thrus). And I absolutely must have something to read. Most of the time a newspaper is handy, and since nobody reads newspapers anymore, I usually don't have to worry about any other patrons monopolizing my reading material. At times, though, I've been in places where there is no newspaper, and I'm stuck reading nutrition information or employment application forms (Arby's has a particularly strong recruitment flyer--I was almost persuaded to try to become part of the "Arby's team").

But no fast food restaurant offers the amount of corporate-provided reading material that McDonald's does. I have been to two separate franchises in the last six months (70 miles apart), both of them sans newspapers, but both providing the same smorgesboard of informational pamphlets and brochures. In addition to the predictable nutritional information pamphlet and the expected Ronald McDonald House brochure, there were three others that caught my attention:

1) "We Care About You": a two-sided pamphlet encouraging customers to submit comments to corporate headquarters
2) "We Share One Community" (subtitled "Socially Responsible Neighbors"): an eight-page fold-out brochure
3) "All About McDonald's & You" (subtitled "Your Family. One Community. Our Commitment."): a six-page fold-out brochure containing different content but indistinguishible in theme from "We Share One Community."

All of the above are copyrighted 2003, and are printed on "acid-free recycled paper." Following is a sampling of quotations that I found amusing:

"We think of our restaurant as a second home for you and your family."
"When you choose to purchase our delicious food, you are making an investment in your community."
" one year in Atlanta, Ga., we spent more than $11.3 million on business and payroll taxes, or about $30,900 each day."
"For a limited time this year, we will bring back our traditional 'White Bags' that we first used to serve your to-go orders. These bags symbolize the vision and commitment of our founder who believed that our customer is the most important part of our business."

This last quote made me wonder exactly what year the traditional white bags were or would be used. A little bit of googling led me to this press release, which discusses not only the white bags, but the very brochures I am referencing here. The year in question is (of course) 2003. It is therefore likely that for the last six-plus years, millions and millions of corporate McDonald's brochures have been sitting out in plain sight, all the while completely ignored by the "billions and billions" of customers streaming past them. I am greatly amused by the sheer incongruity of on one hand, one of the most ubiquitious cultural locations in the nation (the McDonald's restaurant) and on the other hand, a cultural artifact located therein that is so irrelevant that a google search of key phrases within the pamphlets indicates that no one (until now apparently) has taken the time to disseminate any of their content to the world wide web.

In hindsight, it seems possible, if not likely, that these brochures were first published in response to Eric Schlosser's 2001 book Fast Food Nation. And ironically, they arrived just before McDonald's received another round of negative publicity thanks to Morgan Spurlock's film Super Size Me. But in amongst the public backlash against the industry, McDonald's continued to expand their bottom line. Starting in 2003, they had 55 consecutive months of increased profit. About a year ago, The New York Times published a story analyzing McDonald's robust decade. They attribute McDonald's success partially to an inclusion of healthy options, but mostly to an emphasis on quality service.

And while all that may be true, I think there is another reason that McDonald's is able to whether P.R. hits better than almost any other corporation. When your mascot is a clown, and not just any clown, but a clown that is a walking eyesore with a ridiculous rhyming name, you are essentailly broadcasting the fact that your corporation is a joke. (And lest that is not enough, one of your other corporate mascots is a large purple blob named "Grimace"). But fast food is one industry where being a joke is not a detriment, and might even be an advantage. Your customers have a pretty low set of expectations. As long as you keep the floors clean, you have a pit of balls for kids to play in, and you cook your meat long enough to kill salmonella, you are guaranteed success.

But what happens if you try to position yourself as anything other than a place to get fast, cheep, and greasy food? What if you try to brand your company as a legitimate positive force in society? Well, you then raise your customers' expectations. The worst thing that could have happened to McDonald's in 2003 would have been for a significant number of people to have picked up and read their brochures. Fortunately for them, nobody took them seriously enough to bother doing so.


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