Marketing McDonald's: How Jill's healthy recipe revived an ailing fast food giant

After facing increasingly damaging assaults on its brand, McDonald's has taken the fight to its detractors. Sophie Morris meets the executive who is determined to make burger meat out of her opponents

Marketing executives make a point of being on message. For most it's second nature to wear, eat or drive their product, recommend it to friends and casually drop it into conversation at the school gates. In this respect Jill McDonald had a headstart. As chief marketing officer for McDonald's in the UK and Northern Europe, her brand loyalty is so pronounced that she even shares a name with her employer.

This is sheer coincidence, but her dedication was nonetheless rewarded last week when the Marketing Society named her Britain's best marketer, in recognition of the extraordinary about-turn in the fast food chain's fortunes. She joined the company from British Airways just two years ago and in 2007 McDonald's sales figures were the highest for 10 years. Last December alone the UK's 1,200 restaurants served 88 million meals – 10 million more than in 2006.

All this is in spite of the wealth of negative press McDonald's has received, painting the brand as a moral-free multinational, peddling unhealthy food from suspect sources to Britain's young. The famous McLibel case, in which the food giant took two environmental activists to court, lasted from 1994 to 1997, and although the pair were not completely exonerated, the judge said McDonald's was guilty of exploiting children, producing misleading adverts, cruelty to animals and paying staff poorly. Meanwhile, fears over an obesity crisis were gaining ground in newspapers and health circles, and in 2005 profits nose-dived by two-thirds. The new chief marketing officer certainly had her work cut out. She decided to meet the bad press head on, and set about dispelling what she says are untruths about the quality of the food and how it is made. "It has been a very proactive strategy in the last two years to talk to our detractors as well as our customers."

Her intention was "to be more open and transparent about the brand. There are a lot of myths, but 70 per cent of British consumers and 80 per cent of British families eat with us each year." These are staggering numbers, considering the choice of quick, cheap food available on every high street. A major part of the success is down to what McDonald calls "re-imaging", by which she means the makeover many of the restaurants have been given: the white plastic and seats and tiles and bright lighting have been replaced with darker green tones on the outside of the restaurant and red and yellow chairs on the inside.

McDonald has spearheaded additions to the menu that seem healthier and fresher, such as chicken wraps and a chicken sandwich. Fruit and vegetable sticks were already available in happy meals. Only an ingénu would think a restaurant of this size might develop food in a kitchen under one chef – as McDonald knows, the real skill of a marketer is not just in debunking myths but constructing them as well: if you think you are eating a healthy meal, you will be happy to eat it. She has now appointed a Le Gavroche-trained head of food to her team.

Apart from image issues, one problem McDonald has run into is new restrictions on advertising to anyone under the age of 16. Since early 2007, it has been illegal to advertise food and drink to children which is high is salt, fat and sugar. Instead of diverting attention towards older consumers, McDonalds set about aligning the salt, fat and sugar content of their Happy Meals with requirements. McDonald values consumer input and says that the main concern of the mothers she has spoken to is that they want the chain to make the fruit and vegetables as appealing to children as the hamburgers are. This is a tall order, given many adults prefer burgers to broccoli. The answer lay in linking the food to popular characters such as Shrek. "Mothers aren't silly," says McDonald. "They know that the obesity crisis is not about advertising. It is a bit more profound than that."

Parents told McDonald they wanted visits to remain a luxury; the average customer eats at McDonalds two to three times a month. She takes her own young children there twice a week, and is not worried this will have "super size me" effects on their health. "It is a myth that eating burgers and chips is not good for you. There's no such food as good food and bad food, it's all about having a balanced diet."

How damaging are films such as Super Size Me, in which Morgan Spurlock eats only McDonalds for one month and suffers serious health consequences? "You could have done Super Thin Me and been terribly ill as well. It was terribly extreme."

Much of McDonald's PR has been conducted via a website, makeupyourownmind.co.uk, which has information on McDonald's qualifications, pay and working conditions. She can even arrange for customers to visit their supply chain.

If, as McDonald claims, the criticisms are myths, the fact McDonald's made no attempt to dispel them before she joined is puzzling. Perhaps it was a little slow off the mark to outwit opponents such as Eric Schlosser, author of Fast Food Nation, which was later turned into a film?

One of the more surprising moves by McDonald's was its decision to enter talks with Greenpeace in 2006, after the environmental organisation launched a series of stunts to highlight the contribution of McDonald's to deforestation in the Amazon. McDonald's agreed to a two-year moratorium on soya grown on newly-deforested land in the Amazon. The tactics forced McDonald's to react so quickly. Now that the chain has its own secret weapon – McDonald herself – to outwit its critics, it seems the battle lines have been redrawn.

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