Guess What? Downhill’s Easier Than Uphill. Duh!!!!

Unbelievable news today! McDonalds has learned – aghast!!- that their consumer perception is trailing their food quality upgrades.

Well, doan that just shock ya blind!!! Morning Newsbeat passed on this gem:

“McDonald’s Struggles With Brand Perception Issues

Advertising Age reports on how, despite the fact that McDonald’s has been seeing steady sales and profits increases, the company continues to deal with brand perception issues that are not “keeping pace with sales. According to people close to the company, its internal tracking system finds that McDonald’s consistently ranks near the bottom in quality perception when compared with rivals.

“The company is working to close the gap, these people said, by addressing issues related to perceptions about its food’s quality, sourcing and nutritional value; sustainability practices, including suppliers’ treatment of animals; service; and condition of stores.”

Heather Oldani, McDonald’s director-U.S. communications, says that “there is an opportunity for us to answer some of the questions that customers may have, that influencers may have, about our menu, our commitments to the community and in the areas of sustainability — things that frankly we haven’t been as vocal about … in the past.”

I’m pretty sure not even McDonalds’ PR Department is slackjawed at this. Gravity takes you downhill, not up. You might be race champ one day, but if you’re caught with illegal substances or forbidden ski wax, your former fans will knock you downhill as fast as they can- laughing at you at you all the way. All the more quickly now, in an age of social media.

It’s tough to get consumers to believe you have evolved on the quality scale; ask Dunkin Donuts. They had to totally ‘retool’- implementing a new menu, fixtures, employee selection training & compensation. They invested years ( and $milions!) but now they’re a credible destination for the middle-upper class. Their uniformly safe, clean outlets have friendly, attentive staff (and terrific coffee!). You see Mercedes and BMW’s in their customer parking lots.

And it’s a challenge to recover from a quality mis-step. A challenge, but possible. Jack In The Box recovered slowly from QA issues, but did recover.

One KFC in my hometown decades ago, turned out to have kitchen staff who were (to put it generously) violating hygiene standards; that brand has only recently started to recover in that area (I still know locals who avoid KFC’s like the plague, due to incidents >30 years ago!)

Though McDonalds past quality issues may not have been of the severity of a Jack In The Box (or my hometown KFC) you must admit their legacy is one of decidedly low-mid scale quality menu, fixturing, staffing, etc and, in retrospect, their definition of ‘quality’ lagged key social and health trends. They will pay the price of that past for some time.

You find plenty of examples of long consumer memories of poor quality in the Auto sector: I bet it’ll be 3 or 4 decades until GM re-introduces the LeMans brand- ever since they birthed a hideous underpowered namesake to suck the last breath of life out of that once-revered brand.

VW’s Hermosillo, Mexico plant left a lasting legacy of awful build quality. Decades later, despite a VW ‘Phaeton’ luxury sedan’s superb quality, once-burned North Americans gave it a resounding ‘No’. Aspiring car buyers hadn’t yet admitted VW can build a premium product.

It took Hyundai decades to get any sales momentum back in North America, after the Pony debaucle. But they did come back, and they have converted the public over. Mind you they upgraded their quality FIRST, then invested in years and years of industry-best price-value.

In reality, McDonalds did define ‘quality’ in decades past, or consumers wouldn’t have shopped there. Quality was defined as fast, fatty-tasty, drenched with salt. But the definition of ‘quality’ food changed and now McDonalds suffers the echo effect of a reputation of serving decades of fast, fatty, salty items, that scored zero on TODAY’s quality criteria- nutritious, natural, fair trade, healthy, sustainable, etc.

So “Dear McD’s” the lesson here is- be patient and put product quality (as it’s now defined) first. You had a jolly old time for 5 decades stuffing the world with food big on ‘fast’, and small on ‘quality’ as consumers now define it. So bring your product up to date, stay the course (as Hyundai did) and they’ll slowly, grudgingly admit you’ve upped your game. It’s going to take some time for the public to ‘see past your past’.

It turns out consumers do notice product quality track records, and don’t forgive easily. Who’da known?

Steven Litt