Something probably has to change.

Photographer: Joe Raedle/Getty Images)

A Side of Modernity With Your Big Mac?

Justin Fox is a Bloomberg View columnist. He was the editorial director of Harvard Business Review and wrote for Time, Fortune and American Banker. He is the author of “The Myth of the Rational Market.”
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It is Day Three of the modern, progressive era at McDonald’s. Can you smell the hot, sizzling breeze of change?

If you can’t, you’re not alone. The analysts who questioned McDonald’s executives after the company unveiled its turnaround plan Monday took scant notice of all the modern progressiveness in the air, focusing instead on the company’s announcement that it’s going to hand 3,500 of its company-owned restaurants over to franchisers. Investors seemed underwhelmed.

Still, I can’t help but keep coming back to the new catchphrase. Chief Executive Officer Steve Easterbrook said “modern, progressive burger company” four times while talking to the analysts. Chief Administrative Officer Pete Bensen said it once, too.

Then there was the video, from which I took this lovely screen-grab:

McDonald's

Easterbrook’s 23-minute call to arms was targeted at members of the McDonald’s “family,” but is for the moment available for all to see online. I watched it when it came out first thing Monday, and I’ve just been watching again. I can’t stop, really.

Partly it’s just Easterbrook’s accent. He grew up in Watford, a London suburb, and he doesn’t sound much like Ray Kroc. Then there are those eyebrows, which you can see above. Also, as National Public Radio’s Bill Chappell has already noted, Easterbrook hardly ever blinks. But what really got me was his beguilingly weird mix of pep talk, tough talk and management jargon. A sampling:

I’m not interested in average for this business.

Over the last five years, the world has moved faster outside the business than inside.

We’re not on our game. Like I said, the numbers don’t lie.

We will execute at a higher cadence, educated with market-leading consumer insight.

We’ll focus on better listening, better segmentation, less sweeping talk to millennials as if they’re one single group with shared attitudes.

We will create strategies that leverage our scale and convening power. That’s how we’ll continue to deliver our unique surround-sound of positivity.

We will continue to be forensic in our approach to financial management.

There was also this graphic:

McDonald's

See, “modern, progressive burger company” at the very top. In the analyst call, Easterbrook offered this definition of what that meant:

To be a modern progressive burger company, we're … focused on returning excitement to our proposition and brand and unlocking greater financial value. As we turn around our critical markets, we will create strategies which leverage our scale and competing power, bring disruptions to life and sharp brands on the move. We will also seek to be more progressive around our social purpose in order to deepen our relationships with communities on the issues that matter to them.

Maybe what he’s saying is, “We’re going to use our size and scale and talent to copy and improve on stuff that we see smaller, newer restaurant chains doing around the world. We’re basically going to be the same McDonald’s, just less out of date.” This seems to have been the blueprint Easterbrook followed at McDonald’s UK, the best-performing of the company’s major units. He left in 2011 for what turned out to be two brief stints running what you might call modern, progressive UK-based restaurant chains -- PizzaExpress and Wagamama -- then returned to the mother ship in 2013 and was promoted to CEO earlier this year.

There do seem to be some built-in contradictions here. McDonald’s U.S. division said last month that it would increase wages and benefits for workers at company-owned restaurants, which sort of fits with that idea of being “more progressive around our social purpose.” But this week’s turnaround plan called for reducing the percentage of company-owned restaurants. And while McDonald’s push to get medically important antibiotics out of chicken and other food animals is both progressive-sounding and possibly of great import, the company’s scale seems to rule out going to anywhere near the lengths that its former subsidiary Chipotle has on ingredient sourcing. As for the new-look Hamburglar McDonald's unveiled today in the U.S., he does seem modern. Unclear on the progressive part, though.

So what exactly is a modern, progressive burger company? I’m guessing that in the end the only definition that will really matter is this -- it’s one where same-store sales have stopped falling.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of Bloomberg View's editorial board or Bloomberg LP, its owners and investors.

To contact the author on this story:
Justin Fox at justinfox@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor on this story:
James Greiff at jgreiff@bloomberg.net