If you’ve missed it, McDonald’s is the latest brand to have Egg McMuffin on its face. The fast food chain set up a promoted hashtag on Twitter that invited people to #meetthefarmers of McDonald’s. It was designed to demonstrate their renewed vigour for wholesome food and ethical values that the farmers supposedly symbolised. All fine so far.
McDonald’s mistake came when they then changed the angle of the promotion and asked people to share their #McDStories. A proportion of the Twitter community very quickly hijacked the hashtag and contributed their negative McDonald’s experiences. This is by no means an isolated incident. McDonald’s have now joined a long list of distinguished brands including Domino’s, Kenneth Cole and United Airlines to feel the wrath of armchair comedians, disgruntled customers, and general trollers. To be clear, I don’t think this is by any means as large a “fail” as other bloggers and journalists are stating. However, I do think it epitomises the challenge that many brands face when tackling social media.
The challenge is that of relinquishing control of the conversation to the public. In this environment, the unpredictability is something that terrifies many brands. Framing conversations properly, understanding your audience, and having the flexibility to be proactive (as well as reactive) within social media become of paramount importance. This is where I think McDonald’s failed.
Things went wrong for them when they diverged from their original hashtag, which constrained the audience to interact within a predetermined framework. Conversely, the #McDStories hashtag was too open and allowed their audience too much scope for fun. Certain brands such as Skittles and Red Bull can afford to be irreverent, fun, creative, and let their audience have the freedom to behave in a similar fashion. Others are simply unable to do this due to brand perception. McDonald’s didn’t frame the conversation tightly enough, and were seemingly unaware of consumer perception of their brand. Inevitably they opened themselves up to some negativity.
Hypothetically, people sharing their happy meals or fantastic banqueting tales of super-size portions is a great idea. Realistically, it was unlikely that everyone was going to be sharing their wonderful fine dining experiences. McDonald’s brand purpose is not about creating quality food. It is a meal that is eaten furtively, quickly, guiltily, sheepishly, and usually drunkenly in a corner hoping that no one else will see you. Yes, it is enjoyable at the time, but it is a guilty pleasure. It doesn’t make you feel good about yourself and it is probably not an experience you want to boast about. It was too easy and fun for people to be cynical as opposed to declaring how great their last McMeal was.
Another issue to take into account is that of scale. McDonald’s are the largest fast food brand in the world. Millions of people eat their food every day and millions of potential stories are created. Amongst the positive experiences there are inevitably going to be negative ones. This is a fact, and I think the sensationalist tech journalists and bloggers are sometimes very quick to jump on the social media “fail” bandwagon. After all, there were many positive comments and stories shared as well, but they were quickly forgotten about.
The largest failing on McDonald’s part was how they reacted to the negative comments. They were not prepared or flexible enough to react to the situation in a proactive way. Rather than interacting with the detractors publishing negative comments, they simply pulled the hashtag and turned a blind eye. Whilst ignorance may be bliss, ignored comments can stoke the fire of resentment. In social media, negative comments are going to occur, but the art is channelling this negativity in a way that can have a positive impact on brand perception. Listening to your customers, understanding their grievances, and reacting honestly can result in a positive outcome. A voucher and an apology to individuals could have gone a long way to reversing negative brand perception in this situation. Ignoring the comments was not the best course of action.
Despite a couple of minor tactical errors, this campaign is not one that will have any serious implications for McDonald’s. They ran a campaign, tested and idea, and it didn’t work. Brands have to continually test to find what works best for them and without testing innovation will never happen. This is not a “fail” that had any humanist or ethical implications (unlike Kenneth Cole hijacking the Egypt riots hashtag), it was simply a campaign in which McDonald’s lost control. This can happen in social media. McDonald’s will learn from their mistakes and so will other brands and advertisers. The key is being able to frame the conversations in a way in which brands can interact with consumers on their terms, and if things do go wrong don’t bury your head in the sand.