McDonald’s: “Yes, our burgers are 100% beef!” Building Trust through Good Communication

McDonalds going greenBob Langert, McDonald’s Global VP CSR and Sustainability, spoke to the TSSS audience on Oct. 9, 2013 about the lessons he’s learned from the “CSR front lines”. Langert’s presentation was both professional and personal; he described how once he became a grandfather, he found himself thinking much more about the future.  This type of personal connection is a familiar story for many who have embarked upon a sustainability journey.  Sustainability is about our collective future, for ourselves, but even more so, for the generations to come.

Langert described his Top 10 Lessons Learned from the CSR Front Lines in three realms – Opportunity, Integration and Connection.  As an example from the first realm, he described the importance of moving from ‘fear’ to ‘opportunity’, and seeing previously perceived ‘enemies’ (e.g. NGOs) as ‘friends’.  For example, in 1989 McDonald’s faced significant negative public attention directed towards its polystyrene packaging, and suffered the indignity of nicknames like “McToxic”.  McDonalds worked with its supply chain partners and NGOs such as the Environmental Defence Fund and was able to reduce waste by 300 million lbs. during the 1990s – this meant significant cost savings for a zero cost program.

[Join us for a follow-up webinar conversation with Bob Langert on October 23rd at 1pm – hosted by CSRwire.  The webinar will summarize the discussion from the live event and hear which of the 250+ brainstorming ideas regarding authentic and transparent communication resonated with McDonald’s senior leaders.  Click here to register for what is sure to be a great interactive discussion.]

Another such example of McDonald’s seizing opportunity occurred in 2006 when Greenpeace launched its Eating up the Amazon report that documented the impact of US agricultural companies on the destruction of the Amazon. McDonald’s was targeted by Greenpeace in its public campaign that claimed “nuggets of Amazon forest were being served up on a platter at McDonald’s restaurants throughout Europe.” McDonald’s could have fought back but instead it chose to join forces.  McDonald’s worked with Greenpeace, agreeing that there was a problem, and within three months they had worked together to put a moratorium on the damaging soy farming practices in Brazil. McDonald’s has proven that by seizing opportunities, by overcoming resistance and fear, they can move past simply “Doing the Right Thing” to “Creating Shared Value”.

The second realm that Langert described in his lessons learned from the CSR front lines was Integration.  He described the importance of incorporating CSR fully into all business practices, of moving sustainability from the sidelines to the mainstream, and ensuring that it exists under the corporate umbrella, not in an isolated silo.  Langert explained the importance of having not only anecdotal evidence but measurable progress from sustainability initiatives.  He challenged businesses to define and measure sustainability goals.  For example, he explained that McDonald’s is committed to sourcing only sustainable beef by 2016.  He also admitted that there is not yet any universally accepted definition of “sustainable beef” – but this lack of clarity hasn’t stopped them from setting the goal, knowing that further defining the goal and meeting it will be part of the same process.

The third CSR realm that Langert discussed was “Connection”.  He made it clear that there must be a genuinely felt connection, both internally and externally, for corporate sustainability to take root and flourish.  As he explained, “We want Sustainability to be everyone’s job.”  He described how the old question used to be, “How do we tell our story?” but that now they ask, “How do we connect? How do we achieve a dialogue?”  This dialogue is as important internally, with McDonald’s own employees, as it is externally with their customers.  Langert emphasized the need for CSR professionals to adapt their words from “sustainability geek language” to words that are more common, simple, and relatable.  He identified the importance of driving change from the inside, rather than imposing it from the outside.

Langert was followed by , Richard Ellis, Senior VP Communiations, Public Affairs and CSR, whose presentation dovetailed perfectly with Langert’s 10 Lessons Learned.  As an expert in communications, Ellis spoke about the need for Transparency and Authenticity, and how McDonald’s Canada has embraced the three CSR realms described by Langert: Opportunity, Integration and Connection.

Our food your questionsWith over 69 million daily customers, including 2 million in Canada, McDonald’s has a huge customer base, all of whom think that they ‘know’ the company.  But do they really know McDonald’s? McDonald’s Canada recognizes that the best way to achieve transparency and authenticity with their customers is to actually be transparent and authentic.  And so they launched, “Our Food. Your Questions.”  This campaign was envisioned as a way to directly address the many rumours and assumptions that plagued their brand.  But to work, this campaign had to offer a willingness to answer any and all consumer questions with complete honesty and full disclosure.  Most traditional corporations would never get such a plan past their legal department, but McDonald’s Canada did, embracing the motto “We’ve got nothing to hide”, and the campaign that resulted has been a tremendous success.

Since the launch of “Our Food. Your Questions.” McDonald’s Canada ‘brand trust’ scores have jumped by 60%.  What better way to dispel rumours that there is nicotine in their food to make it more addictive (there isn’t!) or that burgers are made of all parts of the cow, including lips and noses (they’re made of 100% beef – oh, and a little salt and pepper) than to address customer questions directly? So far, Canadians have asked – and seen answers to – over 20,000 questions.

McDonald’s is committed to creating shared value.  It’s not just about communication, but also about leadership in such realms as animal welfare, public health and environmental stewardship.  On October 9, 2013, in recognition of McDonald’s Canada’s industry leadership in nutritional information disclosure, Ontario Health Minister Deb Matthews chose a McDonald’s restaurant location as the backdrop for her announcement of legislation requiring calorie counts for menus from large chain restaurants.  There is no shortage of sustainability initiatives at McDonald’s.  McDonald’s Canada’s fish products are 100% sustainably sourced Alaskan Pollock from the Bering Sea and will all be clearly labelled as MSC certified in 2014.  Most of McDonald’s used cooking oil is recycled into other uses such as biodiesel. Children’s Happy Meal advertising now features only images of white milk (rather than pop or juice) as the beverage and apple slices (rather than fries) as the side dish. 85% of McDonald’s packaging is already made from renewable resources and they are now looking beyond sourcing and examining the end of life impacts of their packaging.

More and more consumers are making it clear that they want to do business with companies that they can trust.  Increasing consumer trust increases top line sales. But maintaining consumer trust requires honest business practices and open lines of communication.  In keeping with that spirit of open dialogue, TSSS attendees brainstormed ideas about how to develop a more authentic connection with customers and how to better integrate transparency into corporate sustainability strategies. With over 100 of Canada’s top sustainability professionals in attendance at this event, hundreds of great ideas were generated – click to see the list.

These ideas will be further explored in a follow-up webinar conversation with Bob Langert.  Hosted by CSRwire, this webinar will summarize the discussion from the live event and hear which brainstorming ideas resonated with McDonald’s senior leaders. Click here to register and to join us on October 23 at 1pm EST for what is sure to be a great interactive discussion.

2 Responses

  1. BarbaraKimmel

    It takes much more than good communication, sustainability and CSR programs for a company to be trustworthy. While these are all steps in the right direction, companies must break down silos and create cultures that foster trustworthy business. And over time, they will earn the trust of their stakeholders.

    Barbara Brooks Kimmel, Executive Director
    Trust Across America – Trust Around the World