McDonald's Is Everywhere, But It Doesn't Stand For Anything

The company keeps trying to appeal to new diners, but Americans aren't biting

Five Numbers Explain Why McDonald's Needed a Change

McDonald's practically invented the concept of fast food. It promised meals that were inexpensive and convenient, that could be eaten on the go and even with one hand while driving. The food wasn't necessarily healthy, but it didn't need to be — it appealed to Americans' appreciation for consistency, and took advantage of a thriving car culture. Now, nearly 70 years after the chain was founded, people everywhere — and Americans in particular — have higher expectations about quality and taste. Our aspirations have evolved. That doesn't mean Americans don't want food that's inexpensive and convenient anymore, it's that more of them don't want it from McDonald's. 

This is part of the "customer relevance" problem that led to CEO Don Thompson's resignation. The Golden Arches has sheer size going for it with more than 36,000 locations, but there are now too many other choices that offer better quality, prices, or sometimes just a better atmosphere. "When it comes down to it, McDonald's has strong competitors for each of the foods they offer," said Darren Tristano, executive vice president of Technomic, a research firm. We can get better burgers (and fries) at Five Guys, better chicken at Chick-fil-A, better coffee at Starbucks, better shakes at Shake Shack. Chipotle uses higher quality ingredients. Panera makes its own bread. Starbucks has comfortable chairs. If we want to try something new, we can have a premium pretzel burger at Wendy's or a waffle taco at Taco Bell. 

By broadening beyond their core menu of burgers and fries, McDonald’s “opened themselves up to competitors that challenge the quality,” said Tristano. McDonald’s may be everywhere, but it no longer stands for anything in particular. “You can’t be all things,” said Bonnie Riggs, a restaurant analyst at NPD.

McDonald's has tried to persuade us that we can eat real, healthful fare at their locations. But few are buying it. McDonald's has sold salads for a decade and all the crispy noodles, almond slivers, walnuts, and fruit haven't helped: salads have never accounted for more than two to three percent of sales. Its chicken McWraps (with cucumbers!) have been a disappointment. A campaign to answer questions about the quality of its food backfired. The former "MythBuster" co-host Grant Imahara was filmed explaining what McDonald's french fries are made of. The answer: more than a dozen ingredients, one of which is potatoes and one of which is Dimethylpolysiloxane. It would have been better not to know.

Many items on McDonald's dollar menu don't cost a dollar anymore; they cost more. But if they don't taste good, it hardly matters either way. Same goes for its recent, small efforts to offer custom-made burgers, locally relevant food, or somewhat better service — which might all be too scattershot and too late to reel diners back in.

McDonald's has long had a place in the American imagination. It's diminished. And even with a new CEO described as a "feisty advocate" for the struggling brand, that's a hard thing to reclaim.

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