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,, 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.

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooksA special investigation by Andy McSmith
Life and Style
Baroness Lane-Fox warned that large companies such as have become so powerful that governments and regulators are left behind
techTech giants have left governments and regulators behind
Keith Fraser says we should give Isis sympathises free flights to join Isis (AFP)
Life and Style
'Prison Architect' players decide the fate of inmates
Life and Style
A picture taken on February 11, 2014 at people walking at sunrise on the Trocadero Esplanade, also known as the Parvis des droits de l'homme (Parvis of Human Rights), in front of the Eiffel Tower in Paris.
techGoogle celebrates Paris's iconic landmark, which opened to the public 126 years ago today
Cleopatra the tortoise suffers from a painful disease that causes her shell to disintegrate; her new prosthetic one has been custom-made for her using 3D printing technology
newsCleopatra had been suffering from 'pyramiding'
Arts and Entertainment
Coachella and Lollapalooza festivals have both listed the selfie stick devices as “prohibited items”
Nigel Owens was targeted on Twitter because of his sexuality during the Six Nations finale between England and France earlier this month
rugbyReferee Nigel Owens on coming out, and homophobic Twitter abuse
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs Media

Ashdown Group: Trainee Consultant - Surrey / South West London

£22000 per annum + pension,bonus,career progression: Ashdown Group: An establi...

Ashdown Group: Trainee Consultant - Surrey/ South West London

£22000 per annum + pension,bonus,career progression: Ashdown Group: An establi...

Recruitment Genius: Advertisement Sales Manager

£21000 - £25000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A publishing company based in F...

Guru Careers: Product Design Engineer / UX Designer

£20 - 35k: Guru Careers: We are seeking a tech savvy Product Design Engineer /...

Day In a Page

No postcode? No vote

Floating voters

How living on a houseboat meant I didn't officially 'exist'
Louis Theroux's affable Englishman routine begins to wear thin

By Reason of Insanity

Louis Theroux's affable Englishman routine begins to wear thin
Power dressing is back – but no shoulderpads!

Power dressing is back

But banish all thoughts of Eighties shoulderpads
Spanish stone-age cave paintings 'under threat' after being re-opened to the public

Spanish stone-age cave paintings in Altamira 'under threat'

Caves were re-opened to the public
'I was the bookies’ favourite to be first to leave the Cabinet'

Vince Cable interview

'I was the bookies’ favourite to be first to leave the Cabinet'
Election 2015: How many of the Government's coalition agreement promises have been kept?

Promises, promises

But how many coalition agreement pledges have been kept?
The Gaza fisherman who built his own reef - and was shot dead there by an Israeli gunboat

The death of a Gaza fisherman

He built his own reef, and was fatally shot there by an Israeli gunboat
Saudi Arabia's airstrikes in Yemen are fuelling the Gulf's fire

Saudi airstrikes are fuelling the Gulf's fire

Arab intervention in Yemen risks entrenching Sunni-Shia divide and handing a victory to Isis, says Patrick Cockburn
Zayn Malik's departure from One Direction shows the perils of fame in the age of social media

The only direction Zayn could go

We wince at the anguish of One Direction's fans, but Malik's departure shows the perils of fame in the age of social media
Young Magician of the Year 2015: Meet the schoolgirl from Newcastle who has her heart set on being the competition's first female winner

Spells like teen spirit

A 16-year-old from Newcastle has set her heart on being the first female to win Young Magician of the Year. Jonathan Owen meets her
Jonathan Anderson: If fashion is a cycle, this young man knows just how to ride it

If fashion is a cycle, this young man knows just how to ride it

British designer Jonathan Anderson is putting his stamp on venerable house Loewe
Number plates scheme could provide a licence to offend in the land of the free

Licence to offend in the land of the free

Cash-strapped states have hit on a way of making money out of drivers that may be in collision with the First Amendment, says Rupert Cornwell
From farm to fork: Meet the Cornish fishermen, vegetable-growers and butchers causing a stir in London's top restaurants

From farm to fork in Cornwall

One man is bringing together Cornwall's most accomplished growers, fishermen and butchers with London's best chefs to put the finest, freshest produce on the plates of some of the country’s best restaurants
Robert Parker interview: The world's top wine critic on tasting 10,000 bottles a year, absurd drinking notes and New World wannabes

Robert Parker interview

The world's top wine critic on tasting 10,000 bottles a year, absurd drinking notes and New World wannabes
Don't believe the stereotype - or should you?

Don't believe the stereotype - or should you?

We exaggerate regional traits and turn them into jokes - and those on the receiving end are in on it too, says DJ Taylor