THE BLOG
12/12/2014 11:12 am ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

McDonald's Marketing Misery

Since the mid-1990s, McDonald's has been chasing after consumer trends. That's probably why it's becoming increasingly irrelevant.

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These days, McDonald's appears less as a corporation and more as a case of identity crisis on the Dr. Phil Show. Case in point: the release of its disappointing sales data this week. As soon as the numbers were out, the corporation openly confessed its many problems and promised to change to become a better person.

This marketing-oriented dynamic (customers, health scientists, activists, and the media complain and McDonald's reacts constructively by promising betterment) is fairly recent. Sometime during the '90s, when activists began questioning big brands and associating McDonald's with obesity, illness, and filth, the burger giant decided to face its critics head-on, in a rational enlightenment sort of way. In marketing speak, McDonald's began listening to its consumers. Or in Cluetrain manifesto speak, it began having conversations about how it could move from fast and convenient to fresh and healthy.

Here is an overview of the most popular conversations: too many choices (we will reduce the menu), lack of third-place appeal (we will become a coffee house), lack of customizability (we will introduce customized burgers), terrible service quality (we will improve service quality), dirty restaurants (we will create cleaner and more attractive restaurants), unhealthy food (we will provide a healthier menu), unethical worker treatment (we will devise more effective mentorship programs).

For the majority of its existence, however, McDonald's has followed a very different approach. The pre-1990s McDonald's was a bold and unapologetic cultural creative. Rather than changing its recipe every five minutes to meet societal trends, it actively moulded a society that met its own recipe's needs. McDonald's real accomplishment was to have created something that transcends conventional marketing: McDonaldization.

Coined by American sociologist George Ritzer, McDonaldization is a term that describes the ways in which a society adapts to the characteristics of McDonald's business model (e.g., efficiency, calculability, standardization, etc.). And while Ritzer's theory is utterly critical of McDonald's (for instance, he convincingly argues that McDonald's preference for rationality denies basic humanity), it also offers a sociological explanation for its economic success. Economic success here is not a matter of listening to consumers and then serving them but rather the other way around -- one of reshaping society (its roles, rituals, and understandings) in service of its own agenda.

Consider, as a case in point, children's birthday parties and family Sundays. When I was a child in the 1980s, these two domains were profoundly McDonaldized. They entailed entire sets of scripts, actors, roles, rituals, objects, etc. They were always the same: standardized, calculable, efficient -- and fun. There was no better way to become a popular kid in school or to accomplish middle-class family peace and happiness than an afternoon at McDonald's.

Today this statement seems strange -- and that's probably as much evidence for how society's tastes have changed as it is for how McDonald's has given up to McDonaldize society. We can imagine a life today where the absence of McDonald's (and the presence of, say, Chipotle) feels somehow more real, more authentic, and more timely. Having conversations about better menus, customizable burgers, and food processing will hardly change this imagination.