An Urban's Rural View

The Golden Arches Guide to the Changing Consumer

Urban C Lehner
By  Urban C Lehner , Editor Emeritus
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McDonald's has been making changes, but continues to understand the three things that matter most to consumers. (Photo by Mike Mozart CC BY 2.0)

You can order a Big Mac at a McDonald's restaurant in more than 100 countries, so it's little wonder that the Economist magazine evaluates international currencies using something it calls the Big Mac index (http://tiny.cc/…). The index is based on purchasing-power parity theory, which holds that over time the identical item should cost the same everywhere. By comparing the price of the sandwich in different countries, the Economist believes it can tell whether the U.S. dollar is over- or under-valued.

No one has yet devised a comparable Mickey D's-based index to changing consumer preferences, but it wouldn't be shocking if someone did. For if anyone has a finger on the pulse of the consumer, it's a chain with 36,000 restaurants worldwide (only Subway has more) and a world-leading $36 billion in annual revenue (three times that of No. 3 Subway and double that of No. 2 Starbucks) (http://tiny.cc/…) (http://tiny.cc/…).

So, every now and then I like to check in on what McDonald's is up to. When I last did that a year ago, the result was a blog post that I titled "The Greening of the Golden Arches" (http://tiny.cc/…). In it, I reported on the company's boasts of moving to cage-free eggs and antibiotic-free chicken and removing artificial preservatives from its servings.

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That's still going on. McDonald's recently announced it's removing the apple juice from kids' Happy Meals and substituting an organic juice drink that contains more water and less sugar (http://tiny.cc/…). The company also updated its plans to eliminate antibiotics from the meat it serves, including eventually beef and pork (http://tiny.cc/…). Even the coffee is "sustainably sourced" and the espresso drinks are "brewed with 100% Rainforest Alliance Certified Espresso."

But what isn't changing at McDonald's is at least as important as what is. From a glance at the website, or a visit to a golden-arches restaurant, it's clear that McDonald's continues to understand the three things that matter most to consumers --taste, price and convenience. Yes, consumers like healthy and sustainable, even if they're sometimes confused about what is and isn't healthy and not always sure what sustainable means. But above all they want food that tastes good and doesn't eat up a lot of their time and money.

Food like, say, French fries. Now fries in general are nobody's idea of healthy, and McDonald's fries in particular have been attacked in the food blogosphere for having too many ingredients -- as many as 19 by some counts. Critics think the only ingredients should be potatoes, salt and oil. Responding to that criticism, McDonald's includes among its "aspirational goals" the "simplifying" of the ingredients in its French fries (http://tiny.cc/…). It has already reduced the salt.

But for all that McDonald's is embracing change, it clearly wants its fries to continue tasting the same. Witness the continued inclusion "natural beef flavor" on the ingredients list. In the distant past, the chain used beef tallow in its frying oil, but it gave that up in the 1990s amid growing concerns about fats. In the 2000s, vegetarians sued McDonald's over the beef flavoring, which they complained hadn't been disclosed. McDonald's today is transparent but unapologetic. According to its website (http://tiny.cc/…), "Our suppliers add natural beef flavor, which includes hydrolyzed wheat and hydrolyzed milk, to the par fry oil to contribute to that World Famous Fry taste."

For further confirmation that McDonald's remains McDonald's despite the bows to health and sustainability, I visited the website's "Our Menu" page. The five photos I found at the top are all burgers, fries and breakfast sandwiches. Other than wisps of lettuce, pickle and onion dangling out over the edge of the meat, there isn't a vegetable in sight. When I clicked on the fifth photo, which was labeled "New: Signature Crafted Recipes," I found a mouth-watering gallery of nine meaty sandwiches, newly endowed with such additional ingredients as Sriracha, Pico Guacamole and Sweet BBQ Bacon.

What I see in all of this is McDonald's trying to have it both ways. Changing tastes are forcing it to make what it serves healthier and more sustainable. Yet, hand-in-hand with that effort, the company seems to be making an even stronger pitch to the traditional concerns of its customers.

The moral of the story? Consumer taste is indeed changing, but perhaps not as rapidly or pervasively as it sometimes seems. It's an increasingly complex world for big restaurant chains, not to mention big farmers, to navigate.

Urban Lehner can be reached at urbanize@gmail.com

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