How McDonald’s invented brand journalism, and how brand journalism saved McDonald’s

This is Chapter 1 of Brand Journalism, by Andy Bull. Buy the book here

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Chapter 1: How McDonald’s invented brand journalism, and how brand journalism saved McDonald’s

Goals of this module

  • To examine the coining of the phrase ‘brand journalism’ and the development of the concept.
  • To map the development of the brand journalism strategy at McDonald’s
  • To show that brand journalism was a key part of an almost total reinvention of McDonald’s as a company
  • To outline how adopting a brand journalism strategy brought the end of brand positioning for McDonald’s and a move to market segmentation
  • To demonstrate how the brand journalism approach transforms marketing and makes a marketer akin to the editor-in-chief of a magazine
  • To provide a detailed demonstration of what brand journalism means in practice for the marketing of McDonald’s, with key case studies

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In 2003 McDonald’s was a global corporation in decline.

A brand that had built it’s reputation on the simple slogan that it was a happy place to be; which had democratised eating out, had forgotten what it was about.

Its restaurants were scruffy and tired. Its staff poorly trained and demoralised, its food produced with an eye to economy, not quality. That food had become anachronistic at a time when consciousness about good diet and health were growing rapidly. What was worse, its senior management didn’t see a problem.

In a BusinessWeek article (1), Michael Quinlan, then chairman and CEO, said, “Do we have to change? No, we don’t have to change. We have the most successful brand in the world”.

As sales in each restaurant fell, McDonald’s responded not by improving those restaurants, and what it sold in them, but by opening more and more new ones.

When regular evaluations showed the brand experience was declining, McDonald’s dropped the evaluations.

Instead of making the brand better, it just made it bigger.

In March 2003, BusinessWeek wrote about these problems, under the headline ‘Hamburger Hell’. There were plenty more reports like it. As Larry Light, then McDonald’s chief marketing officer,  recalls in his book Six Rules for Brand Revitalisation (2): “Article after article described the unfortunate conditions of McDonald’s. Reporters, analysts, observers, activists, franchisees, employees, marketing consultants, everyone had something negative to say: McDonald’s was ‘out of date’; ‘too large to be turned around’; ‘its time is passed’.”

And yet.

A year later everything had changed.

When Larry Light spoke at an Economist conference in 2004 he was able to quote headlines such as: “‘The Sizzle is Back’; ‘Eye Popping Performance’; and ‘McDonald’s Leaves Analysts Upbeat on Prospects’. And after another year, McDonald’s was being described as an incredible turnaround business case.”

What had happened in the meantime?

Light had initiated a transformation of the company. Just about everything had changed – from staff training to restaurant refurbishment; the food that was sold and the way McDonald’s was advertised and marketed. That marketing now followed what Light said was something very new: a brand journalism approach.

The McDonald’s transformation

Why did everything have to change? Because everything communicates.

Light says that all the changes he initiated were in pursuit of one central goal: McDonalds had to be demand- rather than supply-driven. He says: “The mindset had to change from selling what we want to provide, to providing the brand experience customers want.

In taking this approach to restoring the brand, he was rejecting the then-current orthodoxy of brand positioning, in favour of a multifaceted approach involving market segmentation.

The out-moded brand positioning approach saw a brand as having one USP – unique selling point – which was relevant to everyone who used that brand. For McDonald’s, that brand positioning approach would translate to the slogan: burgers and fries for everyone.

That no longer worked, he said, because brands actually appealed to many different markets in many different ways. So a revolutionary new approach to marketing was needed.

Light said (3): “We need to reinvent the concept of brand positioning by instituting the new concept of brand journalism. Mega brands are multi-dimensional, multisegment, multifaceted brands. No one communication can tell the whole, multifaceted megabrand story.”

In essence, he explains: “The process of market segmentation is about dividing people into different markets that share common needs and are differentiated from people in other segments who share different needs.

The end of mass marketing and mass media

Light said that mass marketing no longer worked. He said: “We no longer live in a world where mass marketing to masses of consumers with a mass message delivered through mass media makes money. In fact, mass marketing as we know it is dead.”

That’s just as true for mass journalism.

Journalism has always been seen as serving a mass audience. Newspapers, magazines, television and radio – they are all mass media. Or they were. Now journalists are facing just the challenge that Light defined for marketers.

How light used the language and concepts of journalism to shape his concept of brand journalism

One of the first things journalists learn as they begin to write news is to apply what Kipling, its originator, called his ‘six little friends’, or six questions. Six questions that everyone wants answered when they read a news story: who, what, when, where, why and how. Answering those questions is essential if a news story is to deliver the essential information the reader wants. They provide the framework for writing that story.

Light took the language of journalism, and core concepts about structuring a story, identifying and serving a particular audience’s interest in a given subject, and editing a journalistic product, and applied these concepts to marketing.

Which makes what he did immediately recognisable and comprehensible to journalists. Because, while Light’s brand journalism is actually about a new way to market a brand, and was addressed to marketers rather than journalists, it very neatly fits journalists’ way of working. Which is why journalists are just as good at creating content for brands as they are doing it for publishing and media companies.

How Light adapted the who, what, when, where, why and how from journalism to marketing

Whereas journalists use the formula to shape a story, Light uses it to shape a marketing strategy – to help marketers identify market segments; determine their needs and serve them.

In traditional journalism, the elements are these:

  • What: is happening (or has happened, or will happen)?
  • Who: is it happening to?
  • Why: has it happened?
  • How: will it happen?
  • When: will it happen?
  • Where: will it happen?

Light adapts this approach to give what he calls the brand segmentation, brand marketing or brand journalism approach:

First, you must understand a customer’s needs by asking:

  • Why: does the customer use this product or service?
  • What: are the wants that using the product or service satisfy?


  • What: are the problems with what the customer currently uses?
  • Who: are the people with these needs?

How Light’s brand journalism approach to serving an audience draws from journalistic concepts of adapting information to fit any given audience.

So far Light has adapted the 5Ws and H to look at needs and who has them. Next he defines the context of those needs.

He says marketers must ask:

  • How
  • When
  • Where

do these different needs exist?

Light’s brand journalism approach to serving an audience draws from journalistic concepts of adapting information to fit any given audience. It uses journalists’ understanding of writing for niche audiences, and for adapting information to not just the people consuming it, but to how, when, and where they are consuming it.

It’s like a multimedia journalist deciding what content should go in a print product, what is relevant to Twitter or Facebook, where video will be useful, how content can be served by location, via a smartphone app and so on. This, in Light’s terms, is “needs based segmentation”.

Here’s how Light explains the change. As we mentioned, before it took this new approach, McDonald’s was a ‘burgers and fries for everyone’ brand.

Light says: “This [‘burgers and fries for everyone’ description] is wrong. It is product categorisation, not needs-based segmentation. And brands cannot appeal to every person for every occasion. By trying to appeal to an undefined mass market, the result is inevitably a mass message of mediocrity.

With segmentation you get to identify key audiences, with clearly defined needs. Light says: “We [created] a multidimensional view of the market: what people buy and use is a function of why they need it x who they are x context of use (how, when and where).”

Here is how McDonald’s identified some consumer segments, the needs it could fulfil, and when and where it could fulfil them.

It decided to focus on three key segments with different needs:

  • “Great tasting food and fun for kids”
  • “Healthful eating for young adult moms”
  • “Satisfying food for young adult males”

And it decided on four key contexts in which it could satisfy those needs:

  •  lunch,
  • breakfast,
  • late hours, and
  • snacking

Let’s bring this back to journalism – specifically brand journalism – for a moment. This process gives the person who is creating content for a brand a clear idea of who the audience is, and what they are interested in in a range of contexts and situations. Every journalist needs to know this context in order  to do their job as well as possible. In media companies, such research is rarely available to content creators. With brands, it can be.

How McDonald’s got a new tag line

The tag line usually appears beneath the title of a magazine or website, and it acts to explain exactly what the title is about. For example, the magazine Country Living has the tag ‘For when your heart’s in the country’. That suggests to me an audience that may actually live in town, but which loves the idea of country life and aspires to share it. So if you are creating content for this audience, items about achieving the switch to country living – achieving the dream they’ve bought into by purchasing the magazine – are highly relevant.

At McDonald’s, Light didn’t talk about a tag line, he talked about brand essence, but it amounts to the same thing.

McDonald’s developed, as a key part of its rejuvenation, a brand essence which was “to appeal to the child in our hearts”. We can think of it like a tag line – the line under the title, or brand logo – that says what the brand is about. That was a key step in starting to address the key markets they had identified: kids, adult mums and young adult males.

From the brand essence came the slogan ‘i’m lovin’ it’, which turns the ‘child in our hearts’ brand essence into something that can generate content: content for advertising, marketing and brand journalism. Give any content creator the starting point of ‘I’m lovin’ it’ and they can begin to create content that fits the image and personality the brand wishes to project.

How Light’s concept of marketing a brand is modelled on how an editor edits a magazine.

When Light talks about rejecting the concept of brand positioning in favour of brand journalism, a process we discussed above, he draws examples from traditional journalism and journalism products 

He says: “For mega-brands like McDonald’s, Coca-Cola, Kellogg’s, GE, Samsung, Sony, HP, and Visa, we need to reinvent the concept of brand positioning by instituting the new concept of brand journalism. Mega brands are multi-dimensional, multisegment, multifaceted brands, No one communication can tell the whole, multifaceted megabrand story.”

Talk of unique selling propositions was old fashioned, he said. Journalism can show us why that is so: “Think about journalism for a moment. Journalism is the collection and communication of news, events, and happenings. Journalism provides order to otherwise disparate or unconnected events. Journalism informs, entertains, and persuades.”

Light says we should think of a brand as we think of a magazine. You could also think of one of those fat, multi-section Sunday newspapers. Each magazine or multi-section newspaper has its own brand character and direction – broad parameters on what content is and is not right for that title. But, within this, a wide range of topics are covered, which chime with the interests of a wide range of readers.

Not every reader looks at every article in the magazine, or every section in the newspaper. And, as those readers move through life, and their interests and concerns change, they are interested in different aspects of a magazine’s content. Ask a dozen people why they read a magazine/newspaper and you are likely to get 12 different answers. Ask those same 12 people at different points in their lives – when they are looking for their first home; when they are starting a family; when they are looking for good schools for their children; when those children go to university; when they themselves are about to retire – and you’ll get different answers again.

It’s the same, says Light, with brand journalism: “Brand journalism is a chronicle of the varied things that happen in a brand’s world, throughout the day, throughout the years. This is how we create real customer-perceived lifetime value for a brand.”

Different people want different things from a brand (or a magazine) at different times in their day, their week, their lives.

Light says that the motivation to go to McDonald’s is different for each customer segment: kids, teens, young adults, parents, and seniors. Also,  McDonald’s appeals for different reasons at breakfast, lunch, dinner, snack time, on a weekday, and at the weekend. The appeal is different when you are with children, without them, or on a business trip. And the question of who rivals McDonald’s for a person’s custom also differs, depending on their given need and situation at any one time.

Light says that the brand journalism approach to marketing involves appealing to “different people with different desires in different contexts”.

The communications plan – the content element of the brand journalism approach – “consists of a compilation of varied messages, different subjects, and different topics, that all come together in a dynamic, ever-evolving, overall relevant brand story”.

“Brand journalism allows us to express the multidimensional essence of a brand in a way that is appealing and compelling to specific audiences with their specific needs.”

And those brand journalism communications need to use the full range of media, including the traditional mass media outlets of TV, radio, the press, advertising in all its forms, online and social media, events, educational situations and more. And all of those in an international, national and local context.

All those messages, delivered on all those platforms, need to be integrated into a coherent brand story. Which is quite a challenge.

How news drives brand journalism and brand revitalisation

Clearly, McDonald’s wanted people to gain a fresh impression of the brand – to discover that it had something to offer that was new and better – and better suited to them, particularly if they fell into one of the segments we’ve been talking about.

To tell people McDonald’s had changed, and to give them a chance to revise their opinion of the brand, the corporation used news. Light says: “New food news provides this tangible opportunity for people to change their minds.

What McDonald’s came up with were things such as salads with Paul Newman’s dressing, apple slices, yoghurt, better coffee and bottled water.

The needs-based market segmentation gave McDonalds segments and occasions to aim new products at.

McDonald’s brand journalism in action

So how does the brand journalism approach filter down into what McDonalds does in the media? How does it conduct itself online and on social platforms? What content does it come up with?

And, most importantly, how successful is it at the thing Larry Light invented and which so many brands have now adopted?

We won’t look here at the mechanics of its brand journalism here – who does what – we’ll cover that in Chapter 4.

For now, let’s look at a number of brand journalism strategies and how they have worked out for McDonald’s.

First, let’s look at an initiative that is clearly designed to work towards reaching two of the three key customer segments that McDonald’s decided it needed to appeal to via the provision of: “Great tasting food and fun for kids” and “Healthful eating for young adult moms”

McDonald’s Mom Quality Correspondents (4)

McDonald’s knew its food had to be healthier, and perceived to be so. One way it did that was to appoint a group of ordinary mothers who were given full access to McDonald’s. They would go behind the scenes of the company’s operations, meet senior executives and then communicate what they saw. They would be like independent reporters, whose unedited journals, stories and comments would be published on McDonald’s branded websites, in YouTube videos and discussed across social platforms.

Here’s how McDonald’s described the initiative: “With unprecedented access to our food supply system, the Moms’ Quality Correspondents saw first-hand how McDonald’s successfully serves quality food to millions of customers every day…

“Like you, moms everywhere want to know that they’re providing quality, nutritious food to their families. A few years ago, we launched Moms’ Quality Correspondents, an exciting project to address questions that moms—and dads—have been asking about what their kids are eating. Representing real families from across the country, a group of moms came with different backgrounds but a common concern: they care about what their kids eat.”

Here’s how the Washington Post covered the story (5): “So here is Debra DeMuth, McDonald’s global nutrition director, mounting a spirited defense of fries to five mothers of young children at a McDonald’s in Baltimore.

” ‘They are probably one of the most victimized foods,’ DeMuth says.

“Plausible reason: A medium order at McDonald’s, besides the delectable taste, includes 380 calories, 270 milligrams of sodium and a color preservative called sodium acid pyrophosphate. But DeMuth presses her case, pointing out that fries are rich in potassium, adding, ‘They are also a really good source of fiber.’

“One mom replies, ‘Once you throw them in grease, you kind of ruin it.’

“Another says, ‘Potassium is good in bananas.’

“This is the tricky dialogue that results when the world’s largest fast-food chain extols the quality of its food to a group of people — busy moms — who often need food fast but don’t necessarily trust fast food, especially with worries over obesity sweeping the nation. But McDonald’s thinks it has a positive case to make.”

The online comments that the initiative drew were not always positive, but they were published on McDonald’s sites. Here’s one on a video (6)

in which the mothers look at the McDonald’s production process: “It’s a shame that your tour of McDonald’s didn’t include a visit to the abattoir to see animals being slaughtered that go into the burgers or to the rainforests in South America that are destroyed to make way for cattle ranches. But hey, that would have been a reality.”

The Washington Post article quoted above had this from New York University nutritionist Marion Nestle, author of What to Eat: “McDonald’s has a problem… They’re big, so they are an easy target. They sell junk food, and they market it to kids at a time when public obesity is a major public concern. So what are they going to do? Turn into a health-food company? I don’t think they can do that. Somebody must have figured out that what they need is good PR on transparency. Those mothers are willing to be used for that purpose.”

Here’s what one of those mothers thought of the process she took part in, published on McDonald’s website (7): “My impressions of McDonald’s have changed since the beginning of my Moms’ Quality Correspondents experience. Before our trips, I didn’t think I would learn anything, really, that would change my perception that McDonald’s was anything but junk food. Going into McDonald’s to grab a meal doesn’t leave me feeling completely guilty any more. I know I have options to feed my family a nutritious meal out, just as I am able to feed them a nutritious meal at home. It’s all about my choices.

“Moms should know that they can choose, and help their children choose, healthier options at any restaurant. I love the Big Mac sandwich just the same as everyone else, but I know, and now my children know, you can’t eat it everyday. Balance is the key to any eating regimen.”

What did McDonald’s achieve with this brand journalism initiative?

Food Bubbles, a blog about food politics, reports (8) on what McDonald’s goals were: “McDonald’s says the program is not a response to the negative portrayal of its restaurants in [the Morgan Spurlock documentary] Super Size Me, nor is it in response to New York’s new menu laws where its 380 calorie medium fry bares its shame to the world. ‘This program wasn’t in response to anything,’ said Tara Hayes, manager of US communications at McDonald’s. ‘We saw this as a great opportunity to give the facts and let people make up their minds for themselves. You can take it or leave it.’”

We’ll look in detail in Chapter 6 at the ethics of brand journalism. One of the tests of whether the journalism element in brand journalism can be described as ethical is transparency. We’ll discuss that and other issues there.

My impression is that the mom correspondents initiative has brought increased transparency and an increase in trust in line with that enhanced transparency. But while transparency can help remove misconceptions about a brand, it can also highlight truths.

Food Bubbles says (9): “the campaign seems to be making some inroads into reassuring parents that McDonald’s food is not as bad as they think. With absurdly low expectations, though, McDonald’s doesn’t have to try very hard to impress.”

Transparency won’t change the fact that McDonalds produces highly processed foods on an industrial scale. There will always be those who refuse to accept McDonald’s because of that fundamental fact, and those people can be vociferous. McDonald’s presence on Twitter and other social platforms often seems like a fire fight, as they seek to correct misconceptions, counter negative views, and quash false rumours.

So there are limits on what such brand journalism can achieve. The reality is that brand journalism – indeed, all journalism in the modern world – is conducted in an open arena in which anyone can challenge what is said.

Did it succeed? This comment from the Marketing Profs blog (10) is pertinent to that question: “Whether this effort ‘succeeds’ or not (and how will they measure that?), McDonald’s will definitely end up with a much better understanding of how the minds of their mom-customers work, what language they use when they are talking about providing meals for their families, and how they can work to be more relevant in the daily, more health-aware lives of today’s women, in general.”

That strikes me as a fair example of success in the real world of brand journalism.

Let’s look at another initiative.

Our Food, Your Questions

McDonald’s Canada set up a forum (11) called Our Food, Your Questions on which customers could ask about their products.

They say: “We’ll answer any questions about our food – even

the tough ones – then post a personal reply from McDonald’s Canada.”

Often the questions are challenging, and concern factory farming of animals and fish, and about the calorie content of meals. So, ask them how many calories there are in a large strawberry milkshake and they’ll tell you: 1,110. And add: “truly…indulgent”

One question that attracted a lot of interest on social media, and coverage in press and broadcasting, was: “Why does your food look different in the advertising than what’s in the store?

McDonald’s Canada got Hope Bagozzi, its director of marketing, to address the question, in a YouTube video (12).

In it she is filmed buying a quarter pounder with cheese in a store, than taking it over to the studio of the food stylist used by McDonald’s.

The bought burger is photographed, then a second one is prepared under the perfect conditions required for a shoot. The first was made in a matter of minutes, the second takes hours. And then they are compared. The stylist explains why they have to move the elements which aren’t visible in the bought burger – pickles, ketchup and so on ­– to make them visible in the photograph. They reveal the artistry, and also demonstrate why the product you get won’t look as great as the one in the picture.

What’s the result of this exercise in brand journalism? McDonald’s achieves transparency. It’s honest. Does it damage its brand? No. McDonald’s could have chosen to keep quiet on this subject, but if it did so, it would have no chance of influencing public opinion. As with much brand journalism, the goal is to make your voice heard.

But it’s a battle. The (London) Daily Mail headlined its report: ‘One McBurger with lies, please’. Yet within the story it gave McDonald’s credit for what it was doing, saying “the fast-food giant has taken a candid approach by revealing the secrets of how it makes its burgers look so much juicier, bigger and tastier in its adverts”.

Finally, let’s look at a McDonald’s Twitter campaign that went wrong. We do so partly as an example of the dangers of doing brand journalism on social media.

Meet the farmer: When a McDonald’s Twitter campaign goes wrong…

A brand can’t control a Twitter campaign, or one on any other social platform,­ once it has gone live. With Meet the Farmer, McDonald’s used the strategy of placing promoted tweets into the streams of Twitter users during a 24 hour campaign that linked to video (13) on its branded websites and on YouTube featuring farmers who supply the brand.

Essentially they were advertising their brand journalism. It all went horribly wrong.

PaidContent reported (14): “The campaign was intended to share happy farmer stories and featured two keyword hashtags. The company used these hashtags in its tweets and also paid for them to appear at the top of the results when a user searched for those terms.

“The campaign proceeded uneventfully until … McDonald’s switched from its first hashtag #MeetTheFarmers to its second one #McDStories.

“’Within an hour, we saw that it wasn’t going as planned,’” said [Rick] Wion [McDonald’s social media director]. ‘It was negative enough that we set about a change of course.’

“Even though the company used the hashtag only twice, a legion of critics pounced on #McDStories to tell their own tales of weed or animal cruelty. Some offered crass personal accounts like that of @MuzzaFuzza who wrote ‘I haven’t been to McDonalds in years, because I’d rather eat my own diarrhea.’

“The hashtag continues to take on a Twitter life of its own – most recently as a social media parable for marketers.”

But it’s not all negative: “If there’s any consolation for McDonald’s, it’s that the company’s original positive message (‘When u make something w/pride, people can taste it’) continues to appear at the top of the search results. This is happening not because the company is paying for it to stay there… but because of the tweet’s popularity.”

Twitter’s Matt Graves told PaidContent: “It’s what we call a Top Tweet – a tweet that is getting extremely high engagement when people do a search for a term. These are chosen algorithmically.” Promoted tweets are clearly marked in yellow, to differentiate them.

But could McDonald’s have done anything to avoid this embarrassment?

The Complete Pulse blog saw the campaign as misconceived (15) : “How on earth could McDonald’s think that a campaign like this would go well? While there are plenty of people who enjoy McDonald’s food, I sincerely doubt that the majority of them feel proud enough to publicly declare it.”

McDonald’s spokesman told PaidContent the brand took care with Twitter campaigns: “According to Wion, McDonald’s carefully selects the words or phrases used to describe its promoted tweets but that it’s inevitable both ‘fans and detractors will chime in’ (although the latter appear to have a clear majority in this case..)

“His point appears to be that a certain amount of social media blowback is unavoidable if a company is a lightning rod in the first place.”

The Complete Pulse post goes on:  Twitter has proven time and again that once you release a social media campaign into the wild, you no longer control the message. In a way, that’s the entire point of a social media campaign: social proof. In a store, when you see someone else admiring a piece of clothing, you’re much more inclined to be interested in it as well. Social media marketing works the same way. A successful social media campaign is one that gets people to publicly display their genuine enthusiasm for a brand, which in turn makes their friends curious to find out more about this apparently awesome product.

“The pendulum swings both ways, however, as McDonald’s (and many others before them) found out…. The point is, if you’re thinking about trying a Twitter campaign that encourages people to tweet warm-fuzzies about your brand, you’d better be darn sure that most of your followers, and your followers’ followers etc., actually have warm-fuzzies about your brand, or are at least neutral on it.”

So that’s a selective demonstration of how McDonald’s –  whose Larry Light, former chief marketing officer, invented this new term for content marketing – does brand journalism. In Chapters 2 and 4 we’ll look at the mechanics of McDonald’s content creation efforts, and how it runs its brand journalism operation.

We’ll see many further examples of brand journalism in the rest of this book. Bear McDonald’s in mind as you look at them.


These suggested assignments (like others that appear at the end of each chapter) are designed as potential ways in which the chapter can be used as the basis for group discussion, university assignments, or as projects within a training environment.

1 What are the potential gains, and attendant risks, in a brand adopting a brand journalism strategy?

2. Take as comprehensive a look as you can at McDonald’s brand journalism, as practised on social media, via websites, and elsewhere. Consider the quality of the content produced, and the topics covered. What is your assessment of how well McDonald’s does brand journalism?

3. Analyse the brand journalism created by a particular brand, or seek out two brands in the same market sector, and compare how successful their brand journalism is.

4. Find two brands within a market sector, one which uses brand journalism one that does not. Develop a brand journalism strategy for the latter.