Why McDonald’s is in a McPickle

Why McDonald’s is in a McPickle

The brand question this week is a great doorway highlighting something every company tries to avoid…


What’s going on with McDonald’s lately?


The what’s going on with part of the question refers to recent campaigns such as “How very UnMcDonald’s”, and Hipster Hamburglars. Amidst falling global sales and food scares in Asia, the 70-year-old company appears to be flailing more than a bit while trying to figure out how to turn things around.

McDonald’s is far from the first big (or small) enterprise to fall prey to decline. It’s such a prevalent trend that management author Jim Collins devoted a whole book to the phenomenon in How the Mighty Fall.

And as often happens when what used to be working doesn’t any more, the brand is one of the first items on the menu to be questioned. But the brand isn’t the problem; it’s just the result of the problem.

Let’s say a big chunk of the world thinks you care about the same kind of food served up fast, because that is who and what you have been for the last 70 years. And while they used to care about that too, they are starting to change their minds. That’s a problem.

Let’s say your processes, policies and products are all framed around the idea of the same kind of food served up fast. That’s a problem and it will require more than an advertising campaign or a few new menu options to shift things.

The challenge for McDonald’s, or any organisation who finds themselves in decline is not easy. They need to hold on to the purpose and values that have grounded and driven them, while at the same time stimulating progress around everything else. At the same time, being the key – it’s not an either or, it’s an and.

Kodak is another famous example of a company that recognised too late that what they had always done wasn’t what they needed to be doing now. It seems the lessons of the past are not just forgotten but completely ignored.

Which brings me back to How the Mighty Fall. Irrespective of how big your enterprise is, you can fall victim to this paradigm. From Collins’ book, here are the five stages that lead from dominance to death as revealed via his research.

Stage 1 – Hubris born of success

Stage 2 – Undisciplined pursuit of more

Stage 3 – Denial of risk or peril

Stage 4 – Grasping for salvation

Stage 5 – Capitulation to irrelevance or death

Thanks to Jim’s descriptive language we can get a good idea of where McDonald’s currently sits in the order (I think somewhere between stages 3 and 4).

After years of ignoring the proverbial canaries singing ever more loudly that mass produced fast food was bad for our health (think of the effect the documentary Super Size Me, made in 2004, has had on people’s thinking), they now see customers fleeing for more artisanal and healthier fare. The parallels to Kodak are too obvious to ignore – film photography will never be replaced by digital… until it was.

If they are going to avoid sliding even further towards irrelevance, McDonald’s problems are going to take a wholesale questioning of what is core and what is not. Of what can and should change and what shouldn’t.

So if you don’t want to find yourself in a similar McPickle don’t confuse your why with your what. Be prepared to question everything. And never ignore your canaries.

See you next week.


Don’t miss the opportunity to get your brand questions answered by posting them on Twitter @michelhogan or emailing me at michel@brandology.com.au.

See you next week with (your question here).

Michel is an independent brand analyst dedicated to helping organisations make promises they can keep and keep the promises they make – with a strong, resilient organisation as the result. She also publishes a blog at michelhogan.com. Follow her on Twitter.


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