Instead, we follow "best practices" to play a share game -- believing growth lies in products, formats, markets, audiences and communications we haven't mastered yet.
The result: Instead of bringing who we are into the future, we try to turn ourselves into something we're not.
Even the business media are applauding McDonald's for taking bold action. Just as we'll all no doubt applaud the TV networks as they scramble to borrow from competitors' formulas to expand share of young viewership. Just like we applauded Sears, Roebuck & Co. (in the '80s) when the retailer groped its way into "target-related" industries.
These companies are just doing what business schools teach as smart marketing strategy, and falling victim to the flawed belief that products are businesses. When sales ebb, the trained response is to add another formulation, geography, demographic or delivery system.
Critics of the $380 million custom kitchen strategy of McDonald's have focused primarily on practicality: Can they really deliver made-to-order foods in time and at a profit? The real questions go to the heart of the brand, yet few are asking them: Who is articulating and driving "McDonaldness"? Are custom orders, McFlurries and McWraps enriching or diluting it? Is America's leading brand setting itself up for others to eat its lunch?
GIVE THEM A BREAK
The source of McDonald's pre-eminence is neither hamburgers nor fast-food service: It's giving a wide range of people the experience of a reliable break from fatigue, stress, grown-up responsibility. More variety, fewer calories, even enhanced freshness are not the principal criteria for success if what those people seek is "a break today."
A Quarter Pounder may amount to a "hot" Snickers, designed for indulgence but passing as food, that satisfies a moment-to-moment need so important it supports a business that's on every corner.
McDonald's originated these hot little "meal" experiences, and the campaign ("You deserve a break today . . . ") no doubt captured the fundamental needs that drive the business. But those needs have not been internalized as the company's strategic compass.
The great creative is celebrated, but the wider opportunity -- to create unshakable loyalty by building on the "break today" -- is missed.
IT'S NOT ALONE
McDonald's is far from alone. Other successful brands at both ends of the spectrum are running headlong into growth blocks and living through the same cycle. The broadcast networks are launching twice as many pilot programs and grasping at new formats (even a "karaoke sitcom") designed to go after cable TV's smash hits, to combat the audience erosion that ABC chief Robert Iger says "is never going to stop."
Starbucks Coffee Co. is serving gourmet sandwiches, and Einstein Bros. Bagels has decided "Melvin" can stand for baguettes and focaccia as well as bagels and cream cheese. The common theme: A belief their brands lack upside potential; share-of-stomach is the only option.
McDonald's stated vision is to "dominate the foodservice market." The brand's self-image is foodservice, its emphasis competition and shareholder return.
"At the end of the day, this is all about shareholder value," CEO Jack Greenberg told Fortune. The result is shareanoia: We have to build share, anywhere, anyhow, right now.
What underlies these "bold" actions is a lack of core esteem. Unless McDonald's knows a series of hidden truths about its consumers' needs -- and let's hope it does -- the company is implicitly saying that its core isn't "it."
So International Dairy Queen scores a hit with the Blizzard, and McDonald's management breathes a sigh of relief that growth is still possible -- then launches McFlurries.
ConAgra's Healthy Choice translates Californians' taste for healthy, fresh, adult-feeling wrap sandwiches into a hit with a demographic McDonald's covets. Ronald's team responds with McWraps. With a sigh of resignation, they say "maybe `your way' is it," and change their fundamental approach to their fundamental product.
In the '80s, Sears told itself and the world that retailing wasn't really "it." The chain's moves into insurance, car rental and eyeglasses obscured its purpose, diluted its core and caused a sharp decline in the company's stock price.
Today, Sears has restored vitality by refocusing on its core -- the consumer experience at retail that is Sears.
The same cycle is evident in the new Comiskey Park, home of Major League Baseball's Chicago White Sox. Reasoning that waning attendance means baseball isn't enough anymore, the owners remade Comiskey into a multifaceted entertainment center. Videogames have not built that business, they've only further eroded baseball.
The real growth opportunities are within baseball, just as they are within the "break today" that McDonald's provides. Just as every shard of a broken Coke bottle telegraphs Coca-Cola, brands built from a point of core esteem reinforce the consumer's experience with every interaction -- from a bite into a Big Mac to the jingle on the air. To get there, though, companies need to shift the mindset of marketing -- and deviate from "best practices."
For starters, we need to accept that our brand core isn't anything we decide to make it: It's the physical/emotional need satisfaction our best customers actually experience.
The reason marketing lacks a framework for realizing the upside brands actually have is because we have exhausted market research.
THE WRONG QUESTIONS
We have defined research as the practice of asking consumers about product likes and dislikes -- so we can launch products they "like" and communicate the "appealing" attributes. But more and more, consumers don't buy what they say they'll buy. We're fooled because we rely on answers to the wrong questions.
We ask consumers to accurately predict their own behavior with a product -- something they can't do, as the "say one thing but do another" failure of McDonald's Arch Deluxe illustrated.
In research, we need to ask people about their lives first, our products second.
By understanding how, when and why we uniquely satisfy their needs today, we can determine naturally occurring needs our products actually fulfill. The result is a road map (the fundamental strategy) for building leading brands by engineering and communicating satisfying physical and emotional experiences that are the essence of brandness and the "golden fleece" of growth.
Until then, top management at market-leading corporations can only watch new-product bills and failure rates rise. In private, the president of one Fortune 100 company shook his head after his company had done all the "right" things yet lost tens of millions of dollars on new products.
"My marketing people tell me the intros failed because we didn't get repeat," he said.
FINDING THE ROOT CAUSE
His real frustration? His company doesn't know the root cause of the failure. He lacks a way to prevent the cycle from being repeated or to save any of the work he's already invested in.
Only when his marketing organization succeeds in finding and locking into naturally occurring consumer needs, then commits to a logical reorientation of everything from product ingredients to advertising copy, can the resulting products fit, and brands succeed, and endure, without costly, failed best-practice experiments along the way.
With McDonald's leading the way, America's biggest brandholders are risking it all by searching for their futures in others' successes.
Brands can avoid the pitfalls of shareanoia and get back core esteem when they leverage the fundamental consumer need satisfaction that created their preeminence. To do it, marketers need to become expert at something they haven't yet acquired -- the tools for growing the business from needs first, products second.
When they do, they'll find consumers trust their brand to do for them what no other brand can, and respond by valuing that singular experience.
Ms. Murtaugh is president of Murtaugh/Match Associates, Madison, Wis., which describes itself as a business-redefinition company. Its clients include Kraft Foods, MasterCard International and Bristol-Myers Squibb Co.