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This chapter is from the book

"Don’t Launch and Leave"

Many companies would have stopped there. The Premium Salads were a success from the first day they hit the restaurants. By 2004, the company was selling more salads than any other restaurant in the country. Overall sales at McDonald’s had started to turn a corner by the middle of 2003, and by May that year same-store sales had started to edge up for the first time in two years.26 But for Napier, Koepke, and Cook, there was a lot of work left to do to make McDonald’s truly resonate with women. "We knew from talking to women that once you connect with them, you simply can’t walk away," Koepke says. "You simply don’t get a second chance with women. We started out with the salads and the focus groups, and those first steps were like baby steps. Now this is the way we do business."

Next on the list of things to do? Overhaul the way women—and the world, for that matter—viewed McDonald’s as a purveyor of wholesome, nutritious food. The salads certainly helped. But a menu change wasn’t enough to overcome increasing concern and criticism that McDonald’s and the majority of the food it sold—the Big Macs, Supersize fries, and 40-ounce sodas—were helping drive the obesity epidemic in America. In 2002, two girls filed suit against McDonald’s, claiming that eating at the restaurants had led to their obesity-related health problems. The documentary Super-Size Me took direct aim at McDonald’s. The filmmaker, Morgan Spurlock, chronicled his experiment with what would happen if he ate every meal for a month at McDonald’s and followed the sedentary lifestyle of most Americans. The results were not unexpected, save for some damage to his liver that even his doctors didn’t see coming. He gained 20 pounds. He often found that he was tired and cranky before eating and then euphoric afterward. His blood pressure and cholesterol increased. Spurlock dramatized the changes in his body and health in a way that made eating at McDonald’s seem like a quick route to the hospital.27

Despite the mounting criticism, McDonald’s executives weren’t going to stop selling the food that had made the company very famous and very rich. There was simply no use in denying that McDonald’s was what it was: a burger and fries joint. But could the company change the way people thought about McDonald’s food in relationship to their overall diet? Napier’s team began asking itself. Could they give consumers tips and advice on how to control their weight and make better choices when they did eat out? Could they do a better job of offering nutritional information so people could at the very least make an informed choice about what they were feeding themselves and their children? Again, the company found itself turning to women as a way to hone in on what McDonald’s had to do to make itself relevant in a world where the burger had become a bad thing.

As the salads began to take off, talk inside the marketing group turned to how to create a promotion that would drive more women into the stores to try them. The magazine ads were working well, and good word of mouth was helping drive sales beyond the company’s expectations. But a special promotion seemed like the next logical step to get the word out to women who would otherwise rarely consider eating at McDonald’s. That was an important next step for the company if its strategy toward women would be a success. On May 5, 2003, Kim Todd, a vice president with Golin Harris, the public relations agency for McDonald’s, called a meeting with Michael Donahue, the company’s vice president of communications, and a fitness guru named Bob Greene.28 Greene had made a name for himself as Oprah Winfrey’s personal trainer. His books on losing weight and exercising were bestsellers. The pairing of Greene, who espouses not eating after 7:30 p.m. and having dieters sign a weight-loss covenant with themselves, with McDonald’s seemed like an odd choice. Why would a fitness expert with such a solid reputation and the incredible imprimatur of Winfrey become a spokesperson for McDonald’s—apart from an endorsement fee? Todd said there was something in Greene’s message that made him the perfect choice for McDonald’s. "His philosophy, I felt, was very much in line with what McDonald’s needed to try." He was very much about moderation, and his new book, Total Body Makeover, was more about exercising and eating well than it was about dieting. Donahue liked Greene so well that he pulled Lamar into the meeting to introduce him to Greene. Thirty minutes later the endorsement deal was signed. Now came the tough part: creating a promotion that would resonate with the broad swath of women—moms, single women, teenagers, retirees—that McDonald’s needed to reach.

Again Napier searched for a way to build rapport with women that was novel for McDonald’s but a tried-and-true strategy for marketers who’d been focusing on women for years. She wanted to offer women a free gift that would help drive them to purchase meals at McDonald’s in the same way that cosmetics companies used free gifts to drive the purchase of perfume and lipstick. Ironically, the "free gift" idea was what had helped drive Happy Meal sales for so long. But for McDonald’s, the idea of creating a promotion around women was a wholly new approach driven by the marketing team’s mantra of "finding the woman inside the mom." The final product was the "Go Active!" Happy Meal, the first boxed meal designed for adults, which featured a salad, bottled water, and a free gift of a pedometer.

On September 16, 2003, the meal went into an Indianapolis test market. By the end of the month-long test, salad sales in the Indianapolis area had shot up substantially versus the month prior, even as sales of Premium Salads around the nation dipped slightly. The company went national with the Go Active! promotion, handing out thousands of pedometers in the space of a few months. The pedometers came with a booklet written by Greene outlining a few basic steps to take toward a healthier, balanced lifestyle. The Happy Meal, designed primarily with women in mind, ended up changing perceptions of McDonald’s food—even though the company had made only small changes in its overall menu. But by promoting balanced eating along with adding an exercise almost anyone can do—walking—McDonald’s found relevance with women—and a growing number of men—without changing its core identity: fast-food joint. For the majority of McDonald’s consumers, the advice and the pedometer offered them access to information that may not have been readily available to them. "We feed 47 million people a day around the world," says Dr. Cathy Kapica, global nutrition director for McDonald’s.29 Her position was created in 2003 as a way to coordinate McDonald’s efforts at making the creator of the Big Mac relevant in a world where nutrition had shifted profoundly from the 1950s. "For a public health scientist like myself there is no better place to be. We reach a lot of consumers who would never get this kind of information if we didn’t provide it. We need to be on top of this trend if not ahead of it."

While the Go Active! meal was the first attempt to change consumers’ behaviors about how and what they ate at McDonald’s, it wouldn’t be the last, as the company continued to overhaul its image based on its insights into women. Kapica has led much of the reform, especially in providing nutrition information, another "product" designed to appeal to women. "The world has changed," Kapica says. "When McDonald’s started, nutrition wasn’t an issue. It was offering a clean place to eat with safe food made of high-quality ingredients." While none of those demands have gone away, nutrition has crept up the scale of importance, she says. "Today we are busier, but more sedentary. Food is far more widely available. There’s also a lot of confusion over what is the best way to eat. One day it’s low carbs. The next it’s low fat," she says. Add to that the fact that the science of nutrition has changed, she says, and that means McDonald’s has to be far more proactive in the nutritional information it provides. Several McDonald’s executives, including Kapica, point out that the company has made its nutritional information available for 30 years. But until very recently, the information was difficult to find for even the most nutrition-minded consumer. There was a toll-free number to call for information, and restaurants were supposed to have a chart of nutrition information for the menu hanging on the wall where consumers could see it.

Kapica next decided to focus most of her attention on the easiest way to get nutrition information to people who care, notably women. Tray liners with calorie counts were added, and brochures were printed with nutritional information instead of McDonald’s relying on franchisees to display its nutrition charts properly.

But Kapica determined that the best place to put the statistics was online. Women now make up more than 60 percent of Internet users. They also increasingly use the Internet as a place to "manage their lives and the lives of their families," says Kelly Mooney, president and chief experience officer of Resource Interactive. This interactive agency based in Columbus, Ohio, creates Web sites for companies such as Reebok, Hewlett-Packard, and Victoria’s Secret.30 What better place to put nutritional information than the Internet? Kapica concluded. There women can determine ahead of time how many calories are in a typical Big Mac and fries lunch and how to fit a trip to McDonald’s into a balanced eating plan. In 2002, McDonald’s had already created a section on its Web site called "Bag a McMeal," which allowed users to determine the calorie counts for all its products. Kapica and other executives wanted to go a step further. She wanted even more customization so that consumers concerned about calories, fat, and sodium—many of them women, she believed—could determine ahead of time exactly what they could do to bring down calorie counts. The new Bag a McMeal feature lets a consumer fully customize and compare meals to see what happens if they leave off the mayo (a savings of 100 calories) or pick a small serving of fries over the large (a 300-calorie difference) without giving up McDonald’s altogether. In late 2004 and early 2005, McDonald’s tested several more nutrition ideas, including offering consumers a tally of calories with their sales receipt.

By mid-2003, McDonald’s executives were finally ready to turn their attention to the Happy Meal, the product that had helped tip off the company to the fact that it needed to catch up with women. The Happy Meal hadn’t been seriously overhauled since it was launched in 1979. While the focus had been specifically on women for most of 2003, marketing and menu executives knew they needed to take another look at Happy Meals if they were going to remain relevant with women.

But instead of dramatically overhauling Happy Meals, McDonald’s chose to add just a few new menu items that would appeal both to moms and children. The insight for the targeted changes to Happy Meals came from listening to women. This time the focus was flipped on McDonald’s new mantra from the "woman inside the mom" to the "mom inside the woman." The company already had seen Happy Meal sales increase when salads were added to the menu throughout the company’s more than 13,000 U.S. restaurants, Napier says. This highlighted again how important it had been to focus on what moms wanted to eat, not simply on the Happy Meal, which would have been McDonald’s traditional approach.

So, did that mean the food inside the Happy Meal wasn’t a big issue for moms, given how quickly sales had picked up after salads were introduced? McDonald’s let women explain it to them. "When we talked to moms, we didn’t get a sense that they were overly concerned about the food inside of a Happy Meal," Napier says. "It was still a treat for children, not something they would be eating every day." Still, there was an underlying feeling among the executives that if they could offer just a few new choices, they would strike the right balance of nutrition and fun that was needed for both moms and children. "You don’t want to do something so new that it makes everybody unhappy," says Cook, head of U.S. menu management. McDonald’s had already made that mistake during a test of Build Your Own Happy Meal in the mid-1990s. The items offered included apples and bags of carrots. While the choices were certainly healthy, the product never went national. There were too many choices, making it difficult for moms to get their children to settle on the perfect combination. Moreover, products like whole apples didn’t make a lot of sense for children, who couldn’t eat the whole thing and then had no place to put the core. The key to the Happy Meal’s success—beyond the toy—was that it was a quick and fun way for moms to feed their children, devoid of arguments over vegetables and fruit, and it was easy to clean up. So throughout 2003, the company worked on the Happy Meal menu to appeal to mothers without turning off the children. By the summer of 2004, the company was ready to roll with a small set of new products designed to make moms and children happy. Chocolate milk and regular milk in resealable jugs and apple juice were offered as alternatives to sodas. Presliced apples with low-fat caramel dipping sauce provided an alternative to fries. In six months, McDonald’s milk sales had doubled, and Apple Dippers were being ordered in an increasing number of Happy Meals.

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