Finding the "Woman Inside the Mom"
In early 2001, a new product category entered McDonald’s rigorous menu development pipeline. It was a line of salads designed to take the place of the ill-conceived McSalad Shakers that had been introduced in 2000 to replace side salads it already had on its menu. The "shakers" were designed so that consumers could eat a salad out of a cup. It was the fast-food version of a salad far more than it was a concerted effort to bring healthier food and vegetables to McDonald’s menu. Poor design and lack of interest from consumers doomed the product, even though by pulling it McDonald’s knew it would be far behind traditional competitors such as Wendy’s. Moreover, it would offer nothing to compete with new rivals such as the "fast-casual" food outlets like Panera Bread. They offered more modern takes on "fast" food, such as Asian chicken salads, low-fat chicken noodle soup, and sandwiches made with chipotle mayonnaise and gourmet cheeses.
With the new Premium Salads, McDonald’s hoped it was on to a product that would expand the brand’s appeal without sacrificing McDonald’s core qualities. "It wasn’t like our menu in the past didn’t appeal to women. Fifty percent of Big Mac sales are to women," Cook points out. "We are at our heart a burger and fries place." But in today’s world and with today’s women, McDonald’s had to be what it was in the past and find a way to link that to the present. "We knew that women loved many of the products on our menu," Cook said. "But there were women who wanted a salad instead of a hamburger and that had become a reason not to go into our restaurants." But the salads had to do more than make the statement that McDonald’s was putting more healthy products on the menu. They had to be salads that made sense for McDonald’s to sell. With McSalad Shakers, the innovation was the delivery device. Shaking up a salad in a cup with dressing made it very fast. But the salad wasn’t very good, especially because the dressing was not distributed throughout the salad. The salads had to be much more than just fast food. The innovation needed to come from some other place.
In 2002, when the new salads made their way through the company’s intense two-year development process, they came to the attention of Napier and her marketing team as McDonald’s moved responsibility for menu changes from operations to marketing: a significant move that put menu changes in the hands of consumers instead of executives. "The change meant that the people coming up with the new items were talking to consumers from the very beginning of product development," Cook says. In the past, menu changes were often conceived inside and then vetted through traditional focus groups and then handed off to marketing to sell. For Napier, having input into what went into the salads—not just the marketing of them after they were created—was the key. She needed more than another feel-good ad campaign or a product targeted at women through their children—the old way of reaching women at McDonald’s. "It’s easy to get caught up in the heritage of being all about children," Napier says. "It’s an honorable heritage with Ronald McDonald. But what we needed was a consistent focus on women, not just moms." The salads were exactly the kind of product Napier needed to make McDonald’s relevant to women—whether they were moms or not. "When I was given the salads as a project, I felt they would resonate with women," she says. "Mostly what I had seen before from McDonald’s was all about family and moms."
The shift from a "mom-centered" focus on women to women as primary consumers was a major step for McDonald’s. It was driven by a major change in the way the company conducted its focus groups. Traditionally, the company had used mixed-gender focus groups to bounce ideas off consumers and get their feedback on new menu items. Those focus groups were meant to mirror who McDonald’s thought its consumers were: a broad cut of the entire lower- to middle-class population of the U.S. But to test the salads, men were asked to stay home while women in the focus groups lunched inside a semi-truck trailer outfitted to look exactly like a McDonald’s restaurant. As the women ate the salads and offered suggestions to marketing and menu executives, chefs redesigned the salads according to the women’s feedback.
The women-only focus groups proved eye-opening for the executives who were still debating internally about how to make McDonald’s relevant to today’s women. Some were still certain that it was moms and children they should be speaking to, especially because Happy Meal sales were still sinking. "Is it women? Is it moms?" said Carol Koepke, senior marketing director–family brand, of the questioning that went on in 2002.23 With the issues of childhood obesity and the concerns moms had about their children’s eating habits, it would have been easy to focus on adding new items to Happy Meals. But that’s not what Napier’s team heard from their women-only focus groups. "What women told us was that all moms are women, but not all women are moms, so why weren’t we trying to reach all women?" she says. "We realized we should be finding the woman inside the mom."
So began the mantra that has come to define McDonald’s strategy toward women: finding the "woman inside the mom." Everything that McDonald’s did for the women’s market over the next two years—and what continues to drive its strategy going forward—flows from that mantra.
First up for redesign was the Premium Salads line, which was already well along in the development cycle. But for everyone working on the salads, from menu management executives such as Cook to Napier in marketing, there was an intense desire to make certain that the salads did more than fill a competitive niche. They had to be more than just another salad a woman could buy from a competitor. "We had to run our game instead of somebody else’s, which is what we had been doing," Koepke said, referring to McDonald’s strategy under Greenberg of following after competitors’ strategies instead of creating its own. The company had gotten into a bruising battle of "value" menus that pitted its $1 burgers against $1 burgers from its competitors. When Cantalupo came back to the company, he overhauled the company’s entire strategy. Instead of high-growth targets set by Greenberg and his predecessors that could be attained only by opening thousands of new locations every year, Cantalupo focused attention on same-store sales. Future growth, he said, had to be about having customers come back again and again to their local McDonald’s instead of simply opening another location.24 In his "Plan to Win" strategy, introduced in mid-2003, Cantalupo outlined five strategies that he believed would put McDonald’s back on the right track. They were people, products, place, price, and promotions.25
Therefore, the salads, one of the first new products introduced under Cantalupo’s new strategy, had to chin the bar in a way that few new products ever had to. They had to be the kind of salads that women would want to keep coming back for week after week. For Cook that meant going far further than making certain the ingredients were nutritious. They had to be a treat. "In focus groups, women would tell us that iceberg lettuce just wouldn’t do," she says. "Many of them wished they could buy the specialty lettuce from the expensive grocery stores, but they couldn’t afford it. So we came up with a mix of 16 different types of lettuce. We put crumbled blue cheese on it, and instead of making our own salad dressing, we decided to offer Paul Newman’s dressings." Cook adds that she would never have gotten to that kind of feedback in the traditional "mass developments" that McDonald’s had used to create new menu items. "We would have created a list of favorite salad ingredients in America and then thrown them all together in a salad," Cook says. But as the women opened up in the focus groups, they shared little details that made all the difference. "The details help differentiate you, and they send you off in a place where women are going to think, ‘Oh, they thought of me; they knew I’d appreciate that.’" She says the women wouldn’t have opened up with all those details if they had been in a mixed group with men. Today, McDonald’s conducts 50 percent of its focus groups as women-only groups. After women have given their input, however, many of the items are tested with men and mixed groups.
By March 2003, the salads with their radicchio, Boston, and Bibb lettuce, enhanced with ripe grape tomatoes and a choice of several Newman’s Own salad dressings, were ready for their debut. Now Napier and her team, including Koepke, had to turn "the woman inside the mom" mantra into an advertising campaign that would resonate with women in ways that even the best McDonald’s ads had never done. "Like so many marketers, we marketed to a media target based on the media we were buying," Koepke says. "We’d buy a television spot that was supposed to hit with adults 18 to 49." But that old approach wouldn’t cut it with a target that was so disparate, divided, and different as the women of today. The media-buying team decided to broaden its spending beyond national television—where McDonald’s had traditionally spent most of its money.
The team chose to buy heavily in women’s magazines, a medium that McDonald’s had rarely used. But magazines, far more than television, were key to reaching women. "For many women, those magazines are their treat at the end of the day," Napier says, noting that she often settles down with a stack of magazines in the evening. "It’s better than a sleeping pill to relax you." The magazines also were an elegant way of targeting women in the many roles they live through each day while letting McDonald’s focus on a specific salad that would appeal to readers of a particular magazine. In an ad placed in Shape, a magazine targeted at health-conscious women more likely to be single career women, the salad that got the biggest play was the Caesar with the lowest-calorie dressing option. In Parenting, Koepke focused on the experience women have when they come to McDonald’s with their children, but with the added benefit of having food that they would actually want to eat. That ad featured the crumbled blue cheese treat salad and ranch dressing. "Moms already had an emotional connection to McDonald’s. They remember it fondly from their childhood. But what we lacked was the relevant product that would talk to today’s mom," she says. With the salads, the relevance issue Napier had honed in on just six months before was well on its way to being solved. Instead of continuing to talk to women as moms—irrelevant in a world where women were so much more than that—McDonald’s had found both a product and a marketing message that would draw women—moms or not—into their restaurants.