McDonald's just shot itself in the foot. Again. Not as badly as some other times, like in franchisee innovation or being micromanaging enough to court becoming a joint employer of all employees of its domestic franchises. But this one is pretty bad and silly at the same time.
McDonald's has wanted to catch the healthy eating craze and show that it wasn't just about highly caloric fast food, like the 780-calorie Double Quarter Pounder with Cheese, 230-calorie French fries (and since the McDonald's site didn't mention the serving size, I'm going to assume small), and 400-calorie Sausage McMuffin. So, the company introduced over time items like a breakfast fruit and yogurt parfait (150 calories), apple slices (15 calories), and the Southwest Buttermilk Crispy Chicken Salad (oops, 520 calories).
But the company wanted to go beyond adjusting its food. Last week McDonald's announced that the latest Happy Meal toy would be an activity counter. McDonald's Canada senior marketing manager Michelle McIlmoyle told Marketing Magazine that "physical activity is important to everyone of all ages." And the timing neatly coincided with the Olympics (without a mention of the games, let's observe, so there would be no need to pay a fee to the International Olympic Committee).
The Step-It was unusual, in that it wasn't co-branded with another company's brand, like a movie. There are six models, three with light-up bands that would blink faster or slower depending on the child's pace.
Maybe I should have said there were six models. Things fell apart last week when a mother posted pictures of a burn on her child's arm from wearing the device "for about 8 minutes."
Almost faster than you could order a Quarter Pounder meal, medium, with a root beer at a drive-through under a pair of golden arches, McDonald's pulled the products and circulated the following statement to a number of news outlets, including Snopes:
We are voluntarily removing the Step It! Activity Band Happy Meal toys in our restaurants in our United States and Canadian markets. It will no longer be offered as part of our Happy Meals. We have taken this swift and voluntary step after receiving limited reports of potential skin irritations that may be associated from wearing the band. Nothing is more important to us than the safety of our customers and we are fully investigating this issue. Our restaurants are now offering our youngest guests an alternative Happy Meal toy.
It sounds like "limited reports" translates to, "an image posted on social media that went viral and left our heads spinning." An ad that was on YouTube and "showed kids cartwheeling, jumping and jogging to rack up "steps," all while touting a meal that typically includes burgers and fries," according to the Huffington Post, has been set to private.
Luckily, it appears that no one was badly injured. Unfortunately for the company, this is the type of brand-focused exercise where the people in charge have been taken by surprise by operational issues that can undercut the intent. Did anyone thoroughly test that the devices wouldn't hurt a fly? If the issue showed up in only a small percentage of devices, they may have and still missed the problem. Any type of product will have some bad units, and when it comes to electronics, that could mean someone getting burned.
The bigger issue is how you reconcile the attempt to brand fast food as related to fitness. Branding should be something that is natural to a product and company. A Chicken McNuggets Happy Meal with yogurt and apple juice is still 420 calories, 26 percent of which come from 17 grams of fat. There's literally more fat than protein (which clocks in at 14 grams) in the combo. Substitute fries for the yogurt and you have 490 calories, a third of which is fat.
It's difficult and incredibly expensive to advertise qualities into your brand when they don't naturally appear. And then maintaining it is almost impossible. Who's going to believe you in the first place, and what happens when the press decides to look at clear disparities? Remember, not all publicity is good.
Maybe the marketing people at McDonald's need a bit more protein-as-brain-food themselves.