About 6 years ago, McDonalds began its international local-thinking campaign. Listen to local consumers and act on what we hear. Some of what they heard had to do with local taste preferences or eating behaviors; not surprising, a lot of what they’ve been hearing recently has to do with the desire to consume food that’s been locally sourced. A year ago, to that end, the company launched its McItaly burger — all the ingredients are locally sourced and produced. The product will be worth €3.5 million a month to Italian farmers in extra income. Good for the consumer, good for the earth, good for the community.
In the UK, there has long been a “localist” agenda — local provenance, craft production and a dislike of homogenized food and drink. To highlight local sourcing there, photographs of the British farmers who supply McDonald’s appear on the sheets of paper put on customers’ trays. In response to sustainability concerns, cooking oil is converted into biodiesel fuel to power the company’s vans. And in the spirit of customizing offerings to local tastes, many more chicken-based dishes now appear on the menu. The strategy is working. In Britain, McDonald’s same-store sales are up more than 10% year-on-year, for the second year in a row.
So how is local-fever playing out back home? For one thing, design is playing a huge role. Renovations are leaving McDonald’s locations across the U.S. dramatically more visually appealing and locally relevant. “People eat with their eyes first,” says president and COO Don Thompson. There is a corporate design leader for each operating region, and they contract with regional designers who contribute local design elements that make the space feel individual and authentic. The newly refurbished stores are also intelligently laid out to address consumer’s actual behaviors and needs. For example, there are ‘seating zones’ designed for different activities: chilling out, working, casual dining, and group events. “It's a community center,” says VP of Concept and Design, Denis Weil. Last July, the company reported a 6% to 7% sales increase across those stores that had been redesigned.
But all of McDonaldland’s locavorian undertakings have not been so rosy. Much like the concerns over Walmart’s definition of local produce, there are critics who would say that McDonald’s local sourcing efforts are at best a stretch and at worst a farce. In a world where honesty, transparency and authenticity have become cost-of-entry brand values, accusations of ‘localwashing’ (defined as touting local ingredients despite a much larger unsustainable story – it’s the new ‘greenwashing’) can be downright dangerous to brand health. Last summer, DDB developed a regional ad campaign for western Washington state called “From Here.” It was intended, according to the press release, to provide more transparency on McDonald’s local sourcing practices and highlight how much food the company buys from Washington Farms, including apples, potatoes, fish and milk.
Instead of inspiring the warm fuzzies it intended, the campaign drew a firestorm of criticism from hardcore locavores who say that because these admittedly local ingredients hail from large, industrialized environments, where standard chemical-heavy, hard-on-the-earth practices are likely in use, and because the end products they are used to create are themselves chemical-laden and largely unhealthy, this kind of ‘local’ doesn’t count. In the same way, ‘localwashing’ watchdogs have recently attacked Barnes & Noble's local books campaign, Hellman's Canadian advertisements bragging about locally sourced ingredients (which included high-fructose corn syrup), and a Lay's ad touting locally grown Iowa potato chips.
That said, if McDonald's, almost a $10 billion company, continues in the direction of locally sourced ingredients, the socio-economic implications will be huge. “Farmers across the world would have business and a way to feed their children,” observes Ann Forsthoefel, executive director of Portland Farmer's Market in Portland, Oregon. She agrees that the term ‘local’ is so widespread that it's important for businesses to define what it really means. Her own definition? "The sincerity is what's important, whether it's a huge or small business.”