Audacious Byte: McDonald’s Canada Makes “Food Quality” Its Social PR Hero

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I chose to make this an Audacious Byte.

But “Work to make food quality the hero” comes courtesy of Joel Yashinsky, CMO and SVP of marketing and consumer business insights of McDonald’s Canada.

And one presentation page at his Rotman School of Management breakfast talk to business leaders (per Binary Byte) was titled:

What is the key to being Bold?

Bold is a synonym for audacious; heroic is also in that courageous mix.

Smart 21st century companies want to connect with and gain insight from customers, but I don’t think this kind of naked transparency—and risk—has ever been done before, especially about a core business element. As Yashinsky told us, “Food quality perception is the number one co-learn.”

The audacious McDonald’s Canada Our Food, Your Questions program had a number of objectives. But its primary, measurable goal was:

Increase public food quality scores by more than 14 points by 2014.

That’s because family-oriented McDonald’s Canada knows its reputation, value and relationship building rests or falls primarily on the public perception of its food quality.

Byte backgrounder

Two things happened in the summer of 2012. One was that McDonald’s Canada introduced its innovative platform and program—note Joel Yashinsky does not consider it a short-term “campaign.”

The second was O’Reilly Media offered me a review copy of Dave Gray’s book, The Connected Company (released in June 2012).

Something else that’s Audacious about this Byte is I’m going to combine some (but not all) key principles in Gray’s book with McDonald’s Canada game changer platform, though neither the book or program reference one another. Which is rather uncanny, as so much of the thinking corresponds. I’ve bolded excerpts that connect the two. For example, see this Forward excerpt written by Alexander Osterwalder:

“…Dave Gray…weaves together the core elements you need to take into account when designing the connected company: transparent interaction and communication platforms, organizational structures favoring autonomy and adaptation, a culture of experimentation and learning, and a new governance and reward system encouraging new behavior and holding it all together.”

McDonald’s Canada identifies three types

Yashinsky told us McDonald’s Canada recognized it had three main publics:

  • Lovers, whom they already talked to directly
  • Fence sitters, who comprise the majority of people
  • Haters, the ones making the negative comments and posting the images that reflected poorly on the fast food restaurant

With the second and third group, the company recognized a narrative—much of it online—was going on in which McDonald’s Canada wasn’t playing a part. Even with its Food Quality Campaign done with Cossette Advertising, the company admitted although tasteful and effective, the ad messages were basically, “Here are the facts, now shut the hell up.”

And here is one of those uncanny coincidences from The Connected Company:

“If you want customers to help you measure quality, you will need their consent. If you want customers to serve as quality inspectors, they need to agree to enter into that relationship with you….

And for the most part, customers who like your service are willing to get involved to help you make it better. Actually, the customers who hate your service are also often willing to chime in, if they think you’re listening. It’s the people in the middle, who really don’t care one way or the other, that probably won’t get actively involved.” Chapter 10, Connected companies get customer feedback

It was actually the Fence Sitters—the majority of people in the middle—whom McDonald’s Canada most wanted to get involved and turn into Lovers. The decision was made to accept the recommendation from Tribal DDB to talk with customers not at or to them, in order to build stronger relationships online.

During its reconnaissance, Tribal BBD pounced on a single existing query and answer, buried a few clicks deep on McDonald’s website:

Is your meat real or fake?

The recommendation from Tribal BBD was to evolve existing one-way dialogue to a new platform, where it would be Canadian consumers devising the questions, with the goal of making McDonald’s Canada’s food quality the acknowledged hero. Audacious, yes, but the company was reasonably certain it didn’t have any skeletons—or pink slime or cow parts—in its food closet. But it still felt vulnerable about what might be asked.

As Yashinsky said, “This idea was hidden in plain sight.”

The Plan: Undertake a brand action and then do brand advertising

In planning at the front-end to make use of two-way, online communication, McDonald’s Canada knew it had to “feel authentic, be real and transparent.”

Ask → Answer → Amplify 

Phase One included plans to initiate and sustain an open and honest conversation.

McDonald’s Canada wanted organic transparency; a one-to-many dialogue. In keeping with the principles of social media, it was designed to be a conversational experience.

A new website served as the singular platform hub, with a .ca address (with questions limited to Canadian consumers).

Facebook, Twitter and YouTube would be used to amplify the conversation.

As Yashinsky stated,

“How we answered the questions was critical. In particular, the tone and pitch was deemed critical. Some of the questions were surprising. Some almost incredulous, but we couldn’t make fun of any of them.”

Leading the connected company

Although Chapter Nineteen in The Connected Company focuses on leaders, much of what McDonald’s Canada did in Our Food, Your Questions appeared to follow this prescriptive:

“In a connected company…leaders spend their time listening, connecting, and empathizing. If you are a leader, then you are a synthesizer and an amplifier. To truly understand the front-line jobs, you may need to do them yourself.

Prefer richer communication whenever possible…. Look for emergence. Listen, find, tell, and amplify the stories; synthesize, look for the patterns, and help others see them, too.”

Some control was used over the content to manage it. For example, it was decided at the front end not to allow comments on the videos housed on YouTube. The reason was that 99.9 per cent of YouTube comments were deemed negative and/or inappropriate.

Its Facebook page comments are not edited. By the same token, negative comments do not receive a response. A gratifying outcome has been customers proactively defending McDonald’s Canada and its Our Food, Your Questions initiative on Facebook.

As it happens, Youtube and Facebook were the first to build buzz….

A company-wide undertaking 

Yashinsky said involvement includes almost every department at McDonald’s Canada (shades of Employee Byte). In particular, the communication department and the supply chain team have huge, ongoing roles—appropriate staff are assigned questions; some agency and outside writers are involved. Legal vets everything for accuracy. Even supplier partners contribute information, time, energy and enthusiasm.

He reported much internal excitement, indicating the energy and commitment continues to be amazing.

In Chapter Nine: Connected companies have a purpose, Gray writes: 

“Most learning happens by trial and error: you try something, and then based on your success or failure; you learn and improve over time. Purpose gives learning energy and direction, and therefore accelerates and focuses it.

Yashinsky indicated, “We are learning so much.” He shared a ton of information during the hour, but some “learnings” I managed to scratch out included:

  • Tackle issues head on.
  • Get comfortable with being uncomfortable.
  • Challenge convention; make it share-worthy
  • Own the truth with full transparency.
  • Put your brand in the hands of consumers.
  • Focus on the whole experience.
  • Make sure it is tone perfect.

Yashinsky stressed, “Our ongoing objective is to change the conversation, for long-term brand trust.” 

As stated, Yashinsky does not consider this a campaign; rather, it’s a change in the way McDonald’s Canada is evolving its reputation. Phases Three, Four and Five are currently in development.

In the Power of the network chapter, Gray writes:

“Customers have always had the power to choose what they wanted to buy. Customers and workers have always had the power to share their experiences with friends and peers. They have always had the power to promote—or demote—a company based on what it promised and what it delivered. Customers have always been able to vote with their wallets.

But they weren’t connected to a global network with the potential to amplify their opinions and experiences to hurricane strength. And that little thing we call “linking” makes all the difference….”

Measurable results (as of November 19, 2012) 

  • 18,000 plus questions were asked
  • 16 million website visits, with an average time spent of 4.5 minutes
  • 13 million video views
  • 600 plus media outlets covered Our Food, Your Questions (with near-universal praise)

McDonald’s Canada saw a dramatic perception change about food quality, up by 53 per cent—far above the original goal. The biggest surprise was the significant movement of Haters to Lovers, even more so than the (also impressive) Fence Sitters.

Another unanticipated outcome was the phenomenal success of the Phase Two subway and outdoor “papering” (Take brand action and then advertise it….), with numerous people “stopped in their tracks” to read the ads, many taking photos and sharing through social media.

Full confession: although I had read Susan Krashinsky’s From Twitter to TV, McDonald’s offers answers during Phase One, it was really the ad campaign throughout Toronto’s Bloor subway station—including on the escalator walls—that converted me as a fan. It was provocative and visually stunning. 

One of the quotes used in The Connected Company is from Microsoft’s Bill Gates: “Your most unhappy customers are your greatest source of learning.” This would certainly seem to be the case for Our Food, Your Questions!

The first line of research and measurement was the increase in brand trust and scores. Next up is sales and guest counts.

As hoped, the biggest hero—or performer—in Our Food, Your Questions was indeed perceptions about McDonald’s Canada Food Quality.

My assessment

Our Food, Your Questions is huge—a game changer, particularly in regards to social media.

Joel Yashinsky’s theme for his talk was, “Marketing in Today’s Environment.” Others have labelled it content marketing. Given that so much of the program revolves around reputation, value and relationship building, I’m declaring, in my admittedly biased fashion, this is really a public relations effort. One that makes great use of integrated communication, including the increasingly important social sharing of information.

I predict it’s going to clean up in awards, nationally and globally. I also think that as the lead in this “consumer business insights” initiative, Joel Yashinsky is going to be one of the most sought-after business and social media conference speakers in 2013.

And he would be a great choice. Yashinsky interspersed the formal presentation with personal anecdotes—for example, he takes his two daughters to McDonald’s at least once a week, and usually eats at least one McMeal himself, five days a week. Oh, and that he pays attention to his wife who tells him to listen first, before trying to fix things. He was also gracious about answering additional questions, both during and after his presentation, including three from me. (One was about the #McDStories. No, Our Food, Your Questions was conceived independently, not as a reaction to the McDonald’s USA initiative.)

The only criticism I’ve read about Our Food, Your Questions came from an American woman during a Twitter chat, who claimed it wasn’t “transparent” because comments are closed on YouTube for all McDonald’s Canada videos.

What do you think, is providing specific stakeholders with a place to ask any questions about the food served at McDonald’s Canada lessened in impact simply because “Drive-by opinionating” (h/t Eric Eggertson) is not allowed on a secondary platform?

Remember, the hub for Our Food, Your Questions was always planned to be the .ca site.

So kudos to Tribal DDB for conceiving this incredibly creative program, and to McDonald’s Canada for having the guts to do it—talk about some Canuck Golden Arches audacity.

For different perspectives/additional information, see:

My day with the CMO of McDonald’s Canada (Ariel Lin)

5 Lessons From the Best Example of Content Marketing Ever? (Jay Baer)

Note that I may refer to The Connected Company in future Bytes from the PR Sphere columns, as I only made use of a few McNuggets here; it contains a lot more audacious information for 21st century companies and their leaders.

Judy Gombita
This monthly Social Media and Public Relations column is contributed by Judy Gombita. Judy is a Toronto-based public relations and communication management specialist, with more than 20 years of employment and executive-level volunteer board experience, primarily in the financial and lifelong learning nonprofit sectors. She is the co-editor and Canadian contributor (since 2007) to the international, collaborative blog, PR Conversations. +Judy Gombita
Judy Gombita


Sr/hybrid (social) public relations & communication management strategist. Mindful curation @PRConversations. Heart: travel, film, theatre, opera, books & food.
By @rachelbridge100 for @Telegraph: How to survive a #reputation #crisis - 14 hours ago
Judy Gombita


  1. Joseph Ruiz says

    Great post Judy I admire your restraint, not once did you mention how culture eats strategy for lunch. I am interested in learning more and I plan to read The Connected Company thanks for sharing.

    • says

      Well in this particular case McDonald’s Canada Our Food, Your Questions culture AND strategy were very much in synch, so not a competition Joe! :-)

      The other thing was that I received the distinct impression that most of the McMeals Joel eats (at the company HQ’s in-house restaurant) was breakfast–he mentioned the yoghurt and fruit and the oatmeal options. So, it would be culture eating strategy for breakfast in this case.

      You will really, really, really appreciate The Connected Company–a great investment.

  2. says

    Hello Judy,

    bo·da·cious adj.
    1. Remarkable; prodigious. 2. Audacious; gutsy.

    That’s the word that usually runs through my mind when I read your posts and suits this one so very much. Even here in India, the public is divided mostly into the lovers and haters category for McD. I wonder given the success of the Canada campaign, if it will be extended to other countries ?

    The Connected Company book seems to touch upon many of the points we have discussed in #kaizenbiz – another addition to my reading list there – thank you.

    Reading your posts are making me seriously wonder if I should spend some time studying the PR discipline as a career option – such potential there to influence outcomes….

    Suchitra Mishra

    • says

      You always make me laugh, Suchitra. My only problem with “bodacious” is I always think of those lusty, bodice-ripping novels. But if your main definition is “remarkable, prodigious,” I will simply bask in your praise. Thank you.

      You wil love, love, love Dave Gray’s The Connected Company, as he comes at it from a deliberate design perspective, including giving examples of different types of deliberate, non-hierarchical company constructs. (The “podular” company concept would give independent you a great delight, methinks.)

      Many will label Our Food, Your Questions as a (content) marketing initiative, but I think it is telling that the first set of “outcomes” measured was the increase in brand trust and the various performance scores, such as food quality.

      Note that the traditional marketing KPI’s is the second round of research and measurement: sales and guest counts.

      There was no spinning in this initiative. Just truth and (self-chosen) transparency about the “organizational narrative,” which in my books is public relations.

      Finally, this initiative may very well translate to other countries with a McDonald’s presence, such as India. After all, the McCafe concept that is now in North America (USA and Canada, anyhow) originated in Australia. (I was in Oz four years ago, when I was introduced to McCafe and told about it!)

      The last question I asked Joel was whether “I’m luvin’ it!” had come out of Canada, too. (As someone told me at the last #torontob2b meetup.) He informed me it actually was coined by McDonald’s Germany–but has been pretty much universally adopted.

      So perhaps Our Food, Your Questions–or a homegrown version of it–will turn up in India or other countries. I would luv to know what specific Indian dishes are found on your local menus!

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