Breaking Up Is Hard To Do

by , Dec 28, 2010, 7:47 AM
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It has never been what you'd call a torrid affair but I just can't seem to quit it. I remember the first time we met. It was the mid-Sixties. I was visiting my older sister, who had recently married and was living outside of Chicago. We hopped into her car one day and took a 20-minute ride to what is now revered by some as a sacred spot: McDonald's Museum and Franchise Store No. 1 in Des Plaines, Ill. I can't tell you exactly what went on once we got there, but I know French fries were involved.

Flash ahead about 20 years. Adweek has recently bought Ad Forum magazine and I'm putting together the editorial plan for a re-launch of what is now Brandweek. I want stories that get inside the psyches of America's marketers. The first cover line on my list of sample stories? "What McDonald's Knows About Kids."

I never did get that story. In explaining what I was looking for to various reporters over the next couple of years, I'd always come back to the French fries. "They do something with those fries that makes them instantly addictive," I'd say. Not surprisingly, the folks at Oak Brook weren't talking about that.

When my own kids came along, we could not resist an, er ..., occasional, visit. Family lore is filled with stories that, in an earlier day, might be about Thanksgiving feasts with the clan. My daughter, a Chicken McNuggets and Happy Meal aficionado, also loved the play areas. The day she got her head temporarily stuck between the bars that held the Hamburgler at a Yonkers, N.Y., outlet, has taken on fish-story proportions. And my young son, inexplicably flipping though a magazine in his car seat, got visibly excited and nearly uttered his first recognizable word when he came upon a picture of the Golden Arches. "Blug-blug," my wife reports, was clearly meant to mean "Big Mac."

I was reminded of all this by two stories yesterday. The first, by Julie Jargon in the Wall Street Journal, reports that McDonald's is succeeding where other fast-fooders, as the trades call them, are flailing because of its increasingly diverse menu that not only lures cost-conscious consumers but also departs "from the days when McDonald's largely catered to so-called heavy users."

I think that you can read "heavy" several ways. Sometime in the Nineties, around the time that the phrase "Supersize Me" entered the vernacular, a lot of people took a look at their burgeoning waistlines, decided that too much of a tasty thing can be too much of a tasty thing, and discovered apples and leafy things.

In the second piece I read yesterday, chef Neil Ferguson says that he stopped eating At McDonald's entirely after reading Eric Schlosser's Fast Food Nation.

"Something clicked in my head," he tells John Bruno Turiano in Westchester magazine. I know I had a similar reaction after seeing Richard Linklater's movie version of the book, as well as Morgan Suurlock's "Super Size Me." Alas, I finally found out a little bit more than I probably wanted to know about those fries I was so enamored of.

But something started happening in our household about a year ago. We'd be coming home from a movie and my wife would suggest that we drive through a McDonald's for an ice cream cone. "It's only 150 calories," she'd report. Then she started coming home from the gym with a small McDonald's smoothie in tow. They don't compare to the concoctions I blend up in my Vitamix, I'll tell you right here, but at 210 calories, I'm betting they'll leave you lighter on the scale.

Then, a few months ago, I was on a long drive in upstate New York and I inexplicably -- there's that word again -- felt the sharp pang of an Egg McMuffin craving (caution: enticing picture ahead). Hadn't had one in at least 10 years, I'd say. I waited until I hit an intersection that didn't look like it led to the town recycling facility, made a right at the top of the ramp and, sure enough, there were the Golden Arches just a block up the road. Egging myself on, so to speak, by recalling that even Michael Pollan wrote that "obsessing over food rules is bad for you happiness, and probably for your health," I declared the glorious summer morning a "special occasion." So special, I ordered up two Egg McMuffins. Delirium ensured in one of the primal regions of my brain.

I don't know if attracting occasional grazers such as my family is the way Ray Kroc would draw up the business plan if he were getting started today but it's hard to argue with 30 straight quarters of same-store sales increases. The complexity of the new menu comes at a cost, of course, as Jargon reports. Franchisees must invest in new equipment such as the $100,000 McCafe coffee stations and $13,000 frozen drinks machines. They need more staff. It's easier to make mistakes, and sometimes it may take longer to get served.

But I will say this. If an ensuing cholesterol surge doesn't do me in first, I'll probably be back for two more Egg McMuffins on a special occasion some time in 2011. And there'll be a few wildberry smoothies and, yes, reduced fat ice cream cones in between.

0 comments on "Breaking Up Is Hard To Do".

  1. Deirdre drohan Forbes from Catlife Photography
    commented on: December 28, 2010 at 8:54 a.m.

    What a lovely family story :-)
    But what you missed after you left the room this morning asking about having her head stuck in the hamburgler, was a discussion on MacDonalds being one of the good guys of corp. America in so far as they do offer a lot of 'good for you' stuff as well and Ronald MacDonald House too!

  2. Paula Lynn from Who Else Unlimited
    commented on: December 28, 2010 at 10:40 a.m.

    Our sense of smell is the most sensitive senses we have and has the best memory. Lettuce, apples just do not permeate like fries. Too much temptation.

  3. Anne Peterson from Idaho Public Televsion
    commented on: December 28, 2010 at 1:55 p.m.

    Pretty much gave up MacDonalds when they gave up fresh potatoes for their French fries -- never been the same.

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