McDonald's Enters the Age of Transparency

Photograph by Jin Lee/Bloomberg

McDonald’s announced last week that it will start posting calories for all its food on its in-store menu boards. Starting this week, when customers walk into a McDonald’s restaurant they will see in bright lights that a Big Mac and large fries weighs in at 1,050 calories.

While calorie posting in restaurants was going to become a federal regulation anyway during the next two years as part of President Obama’s health-care law, many are wondering why McDonald’s proactively did this so fast.

The company did it because it is actually going to be good for its business.

This is the age of transparency. Companies that are open and honest get rewarded for it, even if they are not perfect. Those that try to hide things—particularly negative things—get slammed for it.

Remember “pink slime” in meat? There were actually some consumer benefits to its use. But because the meat industry had never openly disclosed it to the public, it became a major scandal, forcing producers to immediately abandon it or risk going out of business.

Consumers today want and expect manufacturers to disclose everything about their products—what is in them, how they are made, where and how materials are sourced. Companies that do this are loved, even if their products are not perfect, because they’re viewed as being honest and transparent.

Timberland, a footwear company that is now part of VF, has won kudos for its “Eco-Labeling.” Every box of Timberland shoes has an Eco-Label (modeled after food nutritional labels), detailing the ecological resources required to make the shoes.

For many of its shoes, Timberland’s actual ecological results are not that impressive. For example, some of the shoes are made with only 5 percent renewable energy as posted on the box. But because Timberland is leading the way in its industry in disclosure, it gets credit as a responsible company.

Most consumers want and expect corporations to be more like people. Those that demonstrate through their actions that they have a human side by being honest and open—but not perfect—are loved. Cold, secretive corporations are not trusted.

Small companies often benefit in the court of public opinion because it is easier for them to take on more of a human personality. Before it became part of Unilever, Ben & Jerry’s was a beloved company because it had a real personality and was completely open about everything—all the way down to the founders’ political views. While many Ben & Jerry’s lovers didn’t agree with all of the company’s politics, at least they felt the company could be trusted, because of its transparency.

Most big corporations still don’t get this concept, and they try to avoid publicity and disclosure.

For a long time McDonald’s was one of them. The company’s lack of transparency resulted in a large number of online blogs and postings from anti-McDonald’s activists, convinced it was on a secret mission to poison the world and increase childhood obesity. There was even a popular movie from one of them called Super Size Me.

By admitting that the products it sells aren’t entirely healthy and disclosing the calories for all to see, McDonald’s has just become less sinister and more like a friend with imperfections.