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McDonald’s Customers Don’t Buy Salads – But Whose Fault is That?

| Thursday June 6th, 2013 | 4 Comments

Mcdonalds mealBob Langert, McDonald’s VP of Sustainability told Bloomberg last September that “McDonald’s can be a very healthy lifestyle. I love to be healthy and I love the variety. I love that I can have a wonderful grilled chicken salad today, and a quarter pounder with cheese tomorrow…”

Langert’s diet sounds indeed balanced but apparently it is not very common among McDonald’s customers, at least not the salads part of it. McDonald’s CEO Don Thompson said last week that salads make up two to three percent of U.S. restaurant sales. In other words, McDonald’s customers might be into a grilled chicken but not so much into a grilled chicken salad.

The company seems to believe that this trend will continue. “I don’t see salads as being a major growth driver in the near future,” Thompson said according to Bloomberg, adding that “instead of advertising salads, the company may push hamburgers and chicken sandwiches.”

Does it mean that McDonald’s is losing hope in selling more fruit and vegetables? Not at all! Thomson explained that “there are other ways to sell more fruits and vegetables. For example, some of the chain’s new McWraps have tomato and cucumber slices, as well as shredded lettuce.”

There are two ways to look at this update and McDonald’s decision to focus its advertising on hamburgers and chicken sandwiches. The first is to accept the fact that people go to McDonald’s to buy $1 food items, which generate 13 percent to 14 percent of sales, double cheeseburgers or Egg McMuffin - not salads.

This might not be the optimal situation, but this is the reality and we can’t ask McDonald’s, who made an effort in the last couple of years to increase the variety of salads it offers, to invest in a line of products that its customers are not interested in. After all, an economic losing proposition is not sustainable, no matter how healthy or green it is.

McDonald’s would definitely agree with this approach – in general it believes in providing more healthy choices and sufficient information about the options available and letting its customers make the decision on what to buy. “At McDonald’s, we are committed to evolving our menu to meet our customers’ changing tastes and to providing reliable nutrition information that empowers all our customers to make informed choices — whenever and wherever they visit us,” explained Lainey Garcia, McDonald’s spokeswoman.

The other way to look at it is that this decision shows that McDonald’s commitment to improving its customers’ nutrition and well-being is more limited than the company would like us to think. After all, putting more advertising focus on hamburgers and chicken sandwiches would probably make the forecast on salads not being a major growth driver a self-fulfilling prophecy. How many people do you think would go into McDonald’s and buy a salad after being exposed to advertising praising the Angus Deluxe or the Club Chicken?

While I find the first perspective reasonable, I believe the second one provides a better representation of reality. McDonald’s wants us to believe that it’s all about the customers – they are the ones making the decision and McDonald’s can’t force them to choose one item over another. Yet, this is far from true.

McDonald’s indeed can’t force anyone to buy a Southwest Salad instead of a Big Mac, but it has the power to influence its customers’ decisions and preferences, using effective tools like advertising, marketing and pricing. Looking at these tools, it doesn’t look like McDonald’s really did everything in its power to push salads and increase their likeability among its customers. Did you see any salads in McDonald’s Super Bowl ad this year? I guess not. How many salads does McDonald’s have on its popular $1 menu? Only one. And what about pricing – why does Bob Langert need to pay more for his favorite salad than for his quarter pounder with cheese? Finally, how many salads do you think McDonald’s offers overall? Basically three, after the company removed fruit & walnut salads from its menu this year.

So it seems like McDonald’s has a lot to do with its customers’ disinterest in its salads and could easily do more – from adding more salads to its $1 menu to increasing the variety to offering salads at a more attractive price. The fact that it actually wants to do less brings into mind what McDonald’s former CFO, Matthew Paul, told analysts in July 2004. “We are improving our relevance with products like salads, which cast a favorable glow over our brand and the rest of our menu.”

This quote gives you the feeling that McDonald’s was mainly hoping to create a halo effect with its salads. Now that this effort didn’t seem to work out or succeeded only partially to create a “favorable glow,” McDonald’s wants to move on and return to the basics – hamburgers and chicken sandwiches.

I hope McDonald’s will reconsider its decision – if it really wants to become sustainable and improve its customers’ nutrition and well-being as it claims, the company needs to make a real and continuous effort to sell affordable salads and other healthier choices. Otherwise, it might find out soon that Millennials are not the only ones going elsewhere to meet their needs in terms of both value and values.

[Image credit: Matt McGee, Flickr Creative Commons]

Raz Godelnik is the co-founder of Eco-Libris and an adjunct faculty at the University of Delaware’s Business School, CUNY SPS and the Parsons The New School for Design, teaching courses in green business, sustainable design and new product development. You can follow Raz on Twitter.


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  • Caitlin

    I see your logic, but I go with the first explanation as a more reasonable one. We are human beings, we have brains. McDonald’s is not controlling what we purchase for lunch, we are controlling what they’re pushing for lunch. At some point we need to quit playing to inactive bystander who just floats through life and realize that we are all active, empowered players here.

    • koror

      Oh but McDonald’s very much does influence what people (not necessarily “we” ) purchase. Marketing to the lowest common denominator and the basest human needs (sugar, fat) is very, very powerful.

  • Caitlin

    I see your logic, but I go with the first explanation as a more reasonable one. We are human beings, we have brains. McDonald’s is not controlling what we purchase for lunch, we are controlling what they’re pushing for lunch. At some point we need to quit playing to inactive bystander who just floats through life and realize that we are all active, empowered players here.

  • Brion Hurley

    I’m vegetarian, but I hate salads. Feels like a rip off. I’d prefer McDonald’s go in a different approach, that aligns more closely with their hamburgers. Instead of pushing salads, why not follow Burger King’s lead and offer a veggie burger option, or tofu-based nuggets, or any meat alternative options. I just discovered Burgerville on the west coast, and if McDonald’s went in that direction, they might get back some customers (like myself). If that doesn’t work, at least make some effort around the sustainability of their beef, and quit destroying rain forests.