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McDonald’s Canada aims to humanize image with new ad campaign

For a new advertising campaign, a small film crew criss-crossed the country interviewing more than 450 McDonald’s customers, staff, and suppliers. Some of those people will be the face of the “Welcome to McDonald’s” campaign.

JENNIFER ROBERTS/The Globe and Mail

For more than two years, McDonald's Canada has given consumers a behind-the-scenes look at the company, including how its meat is processed, and how burgers are Photoshopped for ads. It's an attempt to change misconceptions about the fast-food giant. Now, the company is shifting to a more emotional approach in its marketing.

For a new advertising campaign, which launched on Monday evening, a small film crew criss-crossed the country interviewing more than 450 McDonald's customers, staff, and suppliers. Some of those people will be the face of the "Welcome to McDonald's" campaign.

It will include TV ads featuring candid shots captured on the tour, and billboards and posters featuring photographs of real people, listing their hometowns and quotes about why they came to their local restaurant. Online and on social media, the company will post 30 videos telling short stories about some of those people. It is hoping to encourage more people to share their stories, to add to those videos.

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"[Consumers] still think of it as a global brand, and they don't recognize the rich history we have in Canada," said Antoinette Benoit, senior vice-president of marketing for McDonald's Canada. "That's what this work is about. It's about showing the human side of the brand."

It's a connection with customers the company is fighting to maintain.

In January, McDonald's Corp. announced that its net income fell 21 per cent last quarter, capping off a year of declines. In a statement, chief executive Don Thompson said the company "continues to face meaningful headwinds" and is working to adapt "to the changing marketplace."

Changing attitudes toward fast food have presented a challenge for McDonald's. Some customers have migrated to "fast casual" chains that have presented fast-food giants as faceless monoliths. U.S.-based Chipotle Mexican Grill Inc., for example, has used its advertising to criticize factory farming. In October, chairman and co-CEO Steve Ells lambasted his competitors on a conference call with analysts. "The traditional fast-food sector has traded food quality and taste for low cost and ease of preparation," he said.

The McDonald's Canada "Our Food. Your Questions" campaign, launched in 2012, was designed to combat some of this criticism by answering consumers' questions, no matter how unflattering, about the food. The campaign was so successful that it was adopted in the United States. Last year, out of the 10 biggest markets for McDonald's, Canada had the second-best results.

In addition to that rational approach, the company saw a need for an emotional one.

The new campaign includes videos showing farming families passing the trade from one generation to the next, a conscious attempt to humanize the company's image.

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"Things don't grow in a plant, they grow in a field, and the field is taken care of by real people. They are big farmers, they are medium farmers, they are small farmers – the real people working behind the brand," Ms. Benoit said.

Considering a climate of skepticism that greets all marketing these days – one which "Our Food. Your Questions" embraced – it is unclear whether earnest videos of Canadian farmers will be enough to associate the brand with natural, fresh food.

The campaign shoot spanned two months and 35 locations in Canada. The agency behind the project, Montreal-based N/A, shot more than 10,000 photographs and more than 115 hours of film.

"When you're a big corporation, you suffer from stereotyped ideas and misconceptions," Ms. Benoit said.

"Often, the reality is much more simple than what people imagine, and much more human than people imagine."

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