The pantheon of fast-food advertising has long been dominated by a reliable series of adjectives. Juicy. Flame-broiled. Finger-lickin'. But recently, an unusual endorsement has crept into the lexicon: "Actual meat."
That's the descriptor used in the latest iteration of McDonald's extensive Canadian campaign, a product placement deal with City-TV talk show CityLine and Châtelaine magazine in Quebec. The restaurant chain recruited a set of "all-access moms," bloggers who applied for the chance to tour the facilities of its suppliers and give their feedback. In the most recent edition of the ads, one mother who tours the Cargill plant where McDonald's gets its chicken in Canada says it gave her confidence that she was eating actual meat.
The mom tours have been turned into commercials, and support a greater Canadian campaign that McDonald's has been rolling out for nearly a year: a series of spots, each focused on telling the story of one ingredient. The message is that the meals contain food no different than what's in your grocery bag – from Burnbrae eggs to McCain's potatoes The chicken commercial with the moms is already on the air. Next Tuesday, McDonald's will launch its latest 30-second ad to match, informing Canadian customers "what we're made of."
The new spot features images of a woman loading grocery bags into her trunk, a flu sufferer tucking into a steaming bowl of homemade soup, and fingers picking through a worn recipe box for hand-scrawled chicken recipes.
The McDonald's campaign is just one example of a new focus for food marketers. For years, the message was all about taste. But food advertising has shifted to reassuring consumers of the natural, authentic sources for their products.
Other food brands have been working for a few years now to tout their products as basic and wholesome – sometimes with impressive results. Unilever Canada Ltd. won awards for its "real food" campaign for Hellmann's mayonnaise, increasing its Canadian market share from 25 per cent to 29.3 per cent in three years and overtaking Kraft's Miracle Whip spread.
Canada Dry also shifted its North American ad strategy in late 2009, beginning with a commercial showing one of its ginger ale bottles hopping through the grocery store and settling in a pile of ginger roots in the produce section. The brand has since ramped up the message, putting the "real ginger" label on its packaging beginning in 2010, and launching a new ad last year that goes even further, showing workers at a small, pastoral ginger farm tugging plants from the ground, with pop bottles and even a vending machine at the end of the stalks.
Consumer sentiment used to value food science and innovation, says David Gibb, executive vice-president with JWT, the Toronto agency that produced the grocery store spot for Canada Dry (the brand now uses McGarryBowen for its creative work). But now, he says, the zeitgeist has shifted.
"For the last couple of years, people have been responding more and more favourably to the homegrown, the homespun, the hearty, the whole, the real," he says.
"It was a combination of figuring out exactly what we could say that was truthful, permissible, and created the right impression, and second to make sure … that we put the product in the right environment to reinforce images of realness. That's how we ended up in the produce section."
This wholesome messaging is not entirely new. Even in the era of black-and-white commercials, Milky Way could be found claiming that its candy bars were "loaded with farm-fresh milk" and "country eggs."
But two factors have pushed a larger, more rapid shift in consumer sentiment in recent years, according to Michael Cohen, a marketing professor at New York University: The obesity epidemic in North America and a series of food scares in recent years that have raised alarms about food that is far removed from its source.
"You have mothers who care about what their kids eat, which is something firms are trying to connect with," he says. "It's clear that people like to know where their food is coming from."
But there is a disconnect when it comes to pop and fast food brands pushing a "real" and "wholesome" brand strategy.
"It's total b.s., of course," says Alan Middleton, a marketing professor at York University's Schulich School of Business. "There's a phrase in sociology called rural romanticism. Even if we've spent all our lives in cities, we believe stuff from the countryside is real and better for us. … The more visually you can do it, without getting into the gobbledy-gook of what the real ingredients are, the better."
But this strategy can have its pitfalls. In the 1990s, Labatt Brewing Co. Ltd.'s Kokanee beer trumpeted the "Glacier fresh taste" of its B.C.-based brand. Competitor Molson launched its own print and radio campaign revealing that, for the Ontario market, Kokanee was made with not-so-fresh Ontario tap water. Molson's ads ran with the tag line, "B.C. or B.S.?"
McDonald's has its own headaches. Celebrity chef Jamie Oliver has derided fast-food chains for using meat scraps he calls "pink slime" – which he claimed are washed with ammonia to make them edible. Last month the restaurant chain confirmed that it would stop using ammonium hydroxide in its meat products.
McDonald's Canada chief marketing officer Joel Yashinsky says this was not an issue for Canada, where the mechanically-separated meat process was never used. But he says social media has increased the pressure on the company, with rumours circulating online.
He recalls a focus group he attended where customers were sharing good reviews of the restaurant's French fries. "One of the people in the group said, 'Yeah, they're good, but they're not made from potatoes,'" he says. Feedback like that pushed the company to create the campaign now airing.
The strength of a strategy like this is that it can reassure customers. But reams of marketing research show that it can also have the opposite effect. If viewers are already skeptical, the perception that a company needs to say it serves "actual meat" can simply serve to remind them that there were questions about how wholesome it was in the first place.
"The hardest thing to do is change those beliefs," Prof. Middleton says.