European missteps: U.K. not feeling the love; McD's puts slogan on ice

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Not everyone is lovin' McDonald's.

The fast-feeder has declared a two-week hiatus for "I'm lovin' it" in the U.K., leading some to claim that's evidence of a flaw in its global strategy. Critics of the campaign from the outset have said that the tag could backfire in markets where less-than-acceptable operations or the stigma of junk food make "I'm lovin' it" a tough self-fulfilling prophecy.

To win over skeptical Britons, McDonald's "Changes" effort that broke Oct. 15 replaces the famous Golden Arches logo with a yellow question mark and carries the line, "McDonald's. But not as you know it." Aimed at jolting consumers from an image of the food cultivated by films like "Supersize Me," the effort, from Publicis Groupe's Leo Burnett, London, preceded a direct-mail campaign to 17 million households touting healthier menu items and smaller portion size.

"It does seem to poke some holes in [the global strategy]," said one executive close to the situation.

changing perceptions

Even McDonald's executives concede that despite launching a sales juggernaut in the U.S., overseas consumers haven't fallen head over heels for the effort. Yet leadership of the iconic brand is steadfast that its "Changes" campaign is merely the second phase of a two-part push. The first was to reinforce its brand among loyalists; now, it needs to change perceptions among those who aren't.

The effort "is to encourage people to think of us differently and make them aware of new products," said Larry Light, McDonald's exec VP-chief global marketing officer. "There's no intention to abandon either the Arches or `I'm lovin' it."'

He asserted that the marketer accomplished its first-phase goal of retaining the 47 million consumers a day that research showed already were "lovin"' McDonald's. "Most turnaround situations don't have a franchise like that to work with," he said. "We strengthened our customer base and simultaneously worked on new products, re-imaging restaurants, new packaging and work on product improvements ... and customer-service improvements. We are now ready to go with Phase 2, which is customer attraction."

He does not believe that the change in message more than a year into the effort-even if temporary-would create confusion among consumers. He said it fits with McDonald's "brand journalism" strategy. "Within our customer base we have different messages to moms, kids young adult males, young adult females," he said.

Still, Mr. Light conceded that research also showed the chain hadn't received the awareness it had hoped for some of the newer items on its menu, including the all-white meat Chicken Selects and the fruit bags. More worrisome, frequent users didn't like to admit to friends that they ate at McDonald's. "We don't want to have closet loyalists."

In its third-quarter conference call, McDonald's executives acknowledged the company made some missteps in Europe, including not having a value menu in France, and successfully promoting the Salads Plus menu to young women at the expense of young adults and kids. "We need sustaining messages sent consistently across the year to all of our key audiences," said Russ Smyth, president-McDonald's Europe, in an Oct.19 conference call.

more edge

Mr. Smyth reiterated that the company needed more edgy marketing in Europe. "In Europe, our customers give us permission to be a lot edgier than we would get in the U.S. And we need to get there because we're far away from that," he said. "I think that not sustaining the `I'm lovin' it' tonality and relevance also hurt us with the young adult males group in particular."

John Quelch, professor and senior associate dean for international development at Harvard Business School, urged more time for McDonald's to get traction. "The market position and market stature of McDonald's in the U.K. is not nearly as strong as it is in the U.S. and accordingly, you have to stick with the program longer," he said.

But he warned that the "Changes" campaign could backfire. "Trying to suppress the logo and global campaign is not likely to change the hearts and minds of many fast-food voters in Europe."

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