Brand Diagnostic: McDonald’s (U.S.) – “Signs” Spot

The following brand diagnostic was taken from an assignment for my brand management course.


Earlier in 2015, McDonald’s launched an ad during the Super Bowl and the Golden Globes which was called “Signs” (Beltrone, 2015). The American spot, which was produced by Leo Burnett, focused on how McDonald’s franchises in various communities have used their roadside signs to support, celebrate, or acknowledge local and national events; ranging from the 9/11 tragedy, to the Boston bombing, to the 30th wedding anniversary of a loyal customer. The purpose of highlighting the signs was to show how McDonald’s continues to play an important role in the local communities it serves in America. It is also part of a broader brand rejuvenation through a platform that refreshes its long-running “I’m lovin’ it” tagline by putting more emphasis on the “lovin'” aspect; this is all during a time of steep sales declines caused by cluttered and unpopular menus, as well as perceptions of poor quality. All of these factors make it difficult for the brand to appeal to the health-conscious consumer who is gravitating towards healthier, more socially responsible, fast casual companies such as Chipotle.


Based on the “Signs” spot – which places little focus on individual products and sub-brands – it is clear that McDonald’s wants to build its corporate brand equity on the dimensions of corporate credibility, specifically trustworthiness. According to U.S. CMO Deborah Wahl (Morrison, 2015), McDonald’s intends to become a more modern, consumer-centric company in an effort to combat current negative evaluations. The broader “Choose Lovin'” platform in America echoes its recent transparency push in Canada (i.e. as shown by the “Our Food. Your Questions.” campaign, or its animated “Archenemies” spot), which makes it evident that McDonald’s is using “transparency” as a means to achieve a point-of-parity with its perceivably more “trustworthy” competitors such as Chipotle; all of whom are fighting for the health-conscious consumer’s share of heart and wallet. Through this ad, it seeks to position itself as a trustworthy restaurant (POP) that is the only one to have been firmly embedded, present, and supportive of American communities through all of their happiest and darkest moments (POD). By attempting to build a positive image of the corporate brand through its marketing communications, McDonald’s hopes that it will elicit favorable attitudes and evaluations that will positively influence consumer associations with the brand – which, right now, appear to be “cheap” and “unhealthy”.

McDonald’s: Archenemies

McDonald’s: Our Food. Your Questions. (U.S.)


In diagnosing the problem, the development of this communications campaign simply exacerbated the problem of a lack of trustworthiness and transparency, with 59% of readers viewing the spot as “crass” (Spary, 2015), and an arguably “insincere” point-of-differentiation. While there may be discrepancies in evaluations of the ad across geographies (i.e. UK vs. Canada vs. US), the campaign essentially fails to build the consumer confidence it intended. It attempts to convince people to move away from negative associations and instead associate the Golden Arches with the big four-letter word: “love”. The “Signs” spot, specifically, extended this overarching theme by attempting to evoke a sense of “patriotism” – both through its choice of song and recognizing a sense of community for the McDonald’s brand across all of America.

The issue, however, is that these associations fail to effectively form a positive image for the corporation. The values that McDonald’s wants to convey through the ad are conflicting with deeply-held associations with the brand that have been formed over a long period of direct experiences and word-of-mouth. As John Oliver effectively summarizes, current consumer associations of McDonald’s are typically “the makers of the world’s most affordable heart disease”. Trying to alter these through indirect means (i.e. advertising) only results in weak and unfavorable associations, which consequently have a negative impact on McDonald’s positioning. The campaign’s attempt to strengthen and enhance a corporate image of “we care” has a negative correlation with current nodes such as “high calories”, “obesity”, “minimum wage”, not to mention the damaging link that this spot creates with “national tragedies”; all of which seem to contradict the intended image of a “loving” brand. Speaking of “love”, it is also difficult for McDonald’s to uniquely own the “love” platform in a credible and trustworthy way, especially in the midst of countless brands tugging at the same heartstrings (e.g. Coca Cola #MakeItHappy, Dove #SpeakBeauty), which again, weakens the campaign’s effectiveness. All of these factors contribute to McDonald’s failure in convincing consumers to buy into any of its reasons-to-believe in its attempt to redeem the brand’s image.

Testing: ZMET

Ways of conducting further research and testing this hypothesis (i.e. the effectiveness of the “Signs” spot) would involve utilizing the Zaltman Metaphor Elicitation Technique (ZMET) to uncover potentially hidden thoughts and feelings towards McDonald’s. The test could be conducted with two separate groups of consumers – one that has been exposed to the “Signs” spot and one that has not – and instructing them to collect images and photos that indicate what McDonald’s as a company means to them. After having respondents sort their images into meaningful piles, the test would ideally focus on constructs which are linked to the brand’s imagery (i.e. personality, values, and perceived user profile). ZMET would test the exposed group for originator constructs and determine whether they are congruent with McDonald’s intended communications of a sincere, honest, and warm personality. The metaphors to be tested are that of a “patriotic, local community leader” (originator), and determine if this is indeed leading to a connector construct of “being cared for” or “being listened to”, which ultimately arrive at McDonald’s intended destination construct: “feeling loved”. These results would be compared to the non-exposed group, who may have potentially collected more negative images such as an “obese American” (typical user) or an “old white man in a suit” (corporate personality) – of course, this is in addition to the more likely photos of “golden arches”, “fries”, or “hamburgers”. If the test reveals a discrepancy between the two groups, then there may be enough evidence to infer that McDonald’s new “Choose Lovin'” platform (via their “Signs” spot) is indeed having a positive effect on consumer associations with the company.


If McDonald’s wants to build a destination construct of “feeling loved”, then it needs to show that they are really listening to their customers through actions, not words. In other words, it should remedy these associations not through marketing communications, but through the customer experience at the restaurant. The core issue is that judgments of McDonald’s quality – in terms of food, wages, service – is low; and no amount of communications will alter evaluations of products which remain unchanged. McDonald’s should instead focus efforts on enhancing their offerings and their processes. First, appeal to the health-conscious customer through less-fatty, less-oily cooking processes, or – similar to Chipotle – give the option for customers to customize burgers with locally-sourced, high-quality, fresh ingredients. Second, uphold tactics that stay true to one of McDonald’s strongest and favorable associations: convenience; this could be done by simplifying their menu to remove complex items or even implementing mobile ordering to speed up in-store lines. The third – which may be a stretch for the global giant – is to disassociate the corporation with “minimum wage” by simply paying higher wage rates to employees. Again, these are actions (not words) that build consumer confidence in the brand by creating positive associations to “freshness”, “high-quality”, “innovative”, or even “fair wages”. Ultimately, it is through positive direct experiences that McDonald’s will create the trust and transparency that it aims to achieve in order to create the image that of a truly “lovin'” brand.



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