"When you say 100% beef, do you mean the whole cow: the organs, snout, brain, kidneys, etc. or just the plain beef we buy at the grocer?"
That’s a question from Jani S. in Nova Scotia from McDonald’s Canada’s special website for their "Our Food, Your Questions" program launched in June 2012.
Canadians can ask any question whatsoever about McDonald’s food, but to ask a question, participants must connect with either Twitter or Facebook, providing greater visibility and a ripple-in-the-pond viral effect, as questions appear on the inquisitors' social network. Within the first four months, some 16,000 questions were asked, at a rate of as many as 450 per day. In that period, more than 10,000 questions were answered.
There's no dodging the tough questions, and that's the most remarkable element of this project. McDonald's Canada is addressing head-on the rumors about food quality and safety that have long dogged the brand, accentuated in this real-time, veracity-challenged world where mistaken reports of celebrity deaths on Twitter are a seemingly daily occurrence.
Here's McDonald's answer to Jani’s question–-comprehensive, factual, and not laden with artificial marketing hype: "Hi Jani. We wouldn't call it plain beef, but it sure is beef. We only use meat cut from the shoulder, chuck, brisket, rib eye, loin and round. In fact, our beef supplier is Cargill, a name you might recognize. They're the biggest supplier of beef in Canada."
Or check out this question from Isabel in Toronto, who asked, "Why does your food look different in the advertising than what's in the store?"
In response, McDonald's wrote: "Hi Isabel. Thanks for your question. You're right; it does look a little different. But rather than us telling you with text, let our Director of Marketing, Hope Bagozzi show you why in this video." The embedded, three-and-a-half minute video details of an actual photo shoot, demonstrating the dark arts of food stylists and retouchers. The video makes it clear that all the ingredients used in the commercial are exactly the same as those used in the restaurants, but it acknowledges, with almost shocking candor, that the product is heavily manipulated for the cameras. The video's been a huge hit on YouTube.
What effect do those millions of views have on perception of McDonald's as brand? According to Joel Yashinsky, Chief Marketing Officer for McDonald's Canada, the impact will be long-term trust. "We knew you're not going to get an immediate return on investment. But we believe that the return on investment will be over the long-term, because it's going to grow our brand trust and brand health. What I like to call the 'love of the brand' is going to get much stronger, and in the end, we all firmly believe that the return is going to be greater than the investment . . . it's going to be such an important part of our culture moving forward."
Already the brand is seeing reputation gains. In consumer research conducted before and after the first phase of the program (before significant advertising expenditure drove awareness of it), the "curious skeptic" segment of McDonald's prospective customer base gave the company 21% higher marks for "good quality ingredients," according to Yashinsky. Other areas where consumer agreement spiked included attributes like "being genuine" and "improving nutritional content" and "food I feel good about eating."
For many companies, question answering programs are considered reputation management and might task company representatives with answering questions from consumers wherever they occur: Twitter, Facebook, blogs, forums, etc. In McDonald's case, this is not feasible, as the volume of chatter about the brand is too pervasive and widespread.
"We have to use the channels we own so that we could have a conversation with customers, because there are so many different channels out there that we just can't physically reach all of them," Yashinsky says.
And while building a centralized destination for question asking and answering may have been operationally required for McDonald's, it's an approach that has strategic advantages for all companies. "If you can build the platform where you become the trusted expert, you can literally sell anything," says Joe Pulizzi, founder of the Content Marketing Institute and author of Get Content, Get Customers. "If companies had more people thinking about that instead of focusing on the product all day long, I think it would open up all kinds of opportunities."
Information provision is now a spectator sport, and McDonalds's not only understands this important trend, but also built technology to capitalize upon it. In fact, they provided an option for website visitors to "follow" a question and be notified when it has been answered. While it's no doubt impressive that 16,000 questions have been asked so far, it's far more impressive (and beneficial to McDonald's) that 3.1 million questions have been read.
Why isn't every company doing something like "Our Food, Your Questions?" Yashinsky notes: "I think everybody's going to start. We knew that there was really no option if we were going to become a brand of the 21st century, as we were of the 20th century. The customer today wants to know more, especially about the food that they're eating."
McDonald's is effectively balancing the need to promote with the need to inform, a symbiosis that Yashinsky says is very much intentional. "If you have a good story to tell, tell it. But you have to do it in a way that's authentic, and you have to have that conversation with the customer. You can't just preach to the customer these things that you know are true. You have to engage them, so that they can come to learn and believe it and build that trust with you."
Excerpted from Youtility: Why Smart Marketing is About Help not Hype (Portfolio/Penguin, June 27) by Jay Baer.
—Jay Baer is the author of Youtility: Why Smart Marketing is About Help not Hype (Portfolio/Penguin 2013) and a digital marketing expert and president/founder of Convince & Convert, a marketing services firm. Jay has founded five companies, and has consulted over 700 companies and brands on digital marketing since 1994.
[Image: Flickr user Keoni Cabral]