McDonald’s Hails the Kale. Why?

Posted by: Joan Cassidy
  • December 13, 2016

mcdonalds-sign_455x290I stopped by the drive-thru at McDonald’s the other morning, desperate for another cup of coffee. While in line, I noticed a small garden of lettuces. Along with the greens, the raised beds included a sign for Greek yogurt and fresh berries. The headline read, “packed with flavor and protein.”

It seems the trend of restaurants showcasing their chef’s garden to signal quality and freshness is going strong, even at McDonald’s. I suspect I am not alone when I say I have expectations for locally-sourced foods at my neighborhood market and higher-end restaurants. So what is McDonald’s up to with their little garden? Is McDonald’s signaling that they are becoming a farm-to-table, health-oriented franchise? Not anytime soon.

McDonald’s just pumped up its business by making biscuits with egg, sausage and cheese available all day, so it’s safe to say they are committed to what works for them. Yet, McDonald’s leadership is not blind to trends in consumer taste and is extending their brand by evolving product at the edges of the menu. They are planting a seed in the minds of customers in search of their time-tested favorite menu items (e.g., coffee and French fries) that you can find healthy alternatives at McDonald’s. While McDonald’s billboards will still be reserved for images of a refreshing Coca-Cola, crispy chicken nuggets, and of course, hot coffee, the addition of a Kale salad, mixed in with other typical offerings, will now feel less out of place as customers see these items paired with McDonald’s more frequently.

As consumer tastes change, brands need to evolve in a way that doesn’t violate core equities and associations. The truth is, a direct approach to selling exclusively healthy items at McDonald’s would likely be rejected by consumers as being out of character. However, by incorporating a few healthy options and substitutes to fringe menu items, McDonald’s creates new mental associations between their brand and the idea of “healthy” in the minds of consumers. Over time, these repeated associations make an impression and can create the necessary mental space for the brand to evolve and occupy new domains.

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