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Commentary: McDonald’s Should Stick to Flipping Burgers—not its Logo

What might have been good buzz a few years ago might today be considered bad branding.


Across the country—from Helena, Mont. to Elizabeth, N.J. to Florence, S.C.—marketers at companies big and small recently looked at their calendars, discovered that International Women’s Day was coming up on March 8, and had a panic attack. We should do something, right?

I know this feeling. And I’ll bet you know this feeling, too, whether you want to call it the urge to move fast and break things or the fear of getting caught behind your competitors. This feeling forces companies to take action, sometimes good and sometimes bad.

And perhaps this is how it happened that fast-food behemoth McDonald’s (MCD) decided to flip its “M” logo in at least one of its stores—as of now, it seems to only be the outpost in Lynwood, Calif.—and all of its digital channels, something the brand confirmed via quotes in Business Insider on Wednesday: “In celebration of women everywhere, and for the first time in our brand history, we flipped our iconic arches for International Women’s Day in honor of the extraordinary accomplishments of women everywhere and especially in our restaurants.”

My first reaction to this was that it was even better than a Shamrock Shake. Here was a big company taking the very thing marketers think is sacrosanct—a brand logo, and an iconic one at that—and changing it for women. On face value, that’s the happiest meal of all.

But then I started reading some of the social media posts about it, and by the time I was done, I was no longer l-l-lovin’ it. Here’s what some of them said:

Instead of flipping your sign, how about you increase the wage for women @McDonalds @McDonaldsUK

— IceNineCarl 🇬🇧 (@IceNineCarl_) March 7, 2018

Brands, stop exploiting feminism with cute gimmicks. @McDonalds if you want to be perceived as “feminist” you can start by paying your employees fair wages. https://t.co/KEKWvY0GQN

— Jena Friedman (@JenaFriedman) March 8, 2018

Hey @McDonalds, maybe instead of a cheap PR stunt where you make the M a W to “support” women, you do something real — like paying your workers a living wage. https://t.co/xoOHRvSQdx

— Nate Lerner (@NathanLerner) March 7, 2018

But what really struck me after reading all these tweets was that this stunt looks good at face value because that’s all it is: face value. The flipping of a sign is as empty of a gesture as the flipping of a burger. The company wasn’t doing anything to support its female-identifying employees or customers; it was simply saying it supported them.

On the same day I saw this, I happened to also attend a digital marketing conference where I saw WeWork CEO Adam Neumann speaking alongside Seth Besmertnik, co-founder of SEO content platform Conductor—which the former had announced acquiring the day before. Now, as a marketer, I’m generally skeptical of marketing, but I was taken with the fact that the alignment these two entrepreneurs identified among their companies was in “humanizing marketing.”

Neumann in particular spoke of how we’d gotten away from a world in which we’re creating tangible value in customer’s lives, and we have to get back to that. This resonated for me as I’ve written a lot on the topic of empathy in marketing, and why it’s more important than ever.

It also seems relevant in this McDonald’s situation.

In light of this sign switcheroo, ThinkProgress writer Luke Barnes called out the company for its low wages and for allegedly ignoring employee sexual harassment complaints, among other things. I won’t claim to be an expert on McDonald’s policies toward the advancement of women. But I will say that while it would have most certainly been harder for the company to address real issues such as these, it would almost certainly have been more meaningful.

Imagine if the sign stunt had come concurrent to real action or policy change—for example, a pay parity review system or an anonymous harassment line. The McDonald’s PR team would have had a field day taking calls from press lauding them for making a major mea culpa. After all, it’s harder to write bad things about a company that’s owning up to something.

But attaching an action to a press release gets you more than just buzz. It can buy you loyalty. Such a policy would create a better employee experience, and employer branding is customer branding just as customer branding is employer branding.

Such an action would make consumers feel better about their purchases. And data from Motista cited in a Harvard Business Review article found that people who feel an emotional connection with the brand bring in 52% more value for the company than the typical “highly satisfied” customer. At the same conference I attended on Wednesday, Ryan Skinner, an analyst with Forrester, talked about the economic benefits of investing in customer experience. For a big-box retailer, the closest category to fast food he discussed, a one-point increase in customer experience index can result in a revenue differential of $244 million.

That’s real money. We’re not talking Dollar Menu here. But instead of taking the higher, steeper, and possibly more profitable road, Mickey D’s simply provided an easy way for the competition to slide in with a sick burn:

Wendy's starts with a W

— Wendy's (@Wendys) March 6, 2018

Hey, now there’s a woman I can relate to: She’s funny but confident and not afraid to stand up for herself. As quick marketing activations go, that’s not bad.

But even that doesn’t move the needle on progress for humanity. So let me leave you with a contrarian thought for marketers: Do you really need to move fast and break things? Wouldn’t it be better to sometimes move slowly—and thoughtfully—and fix them?

Margaret Magnarelli is senior director of marketing at Monster.

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