retail news in context, analysis with attitude

A guest column by Chelsea Ware

Content Guy's Note: I met Chelsea Ware last week when I was out at Portland State University for the Center for Retail Leadership's annual executive conference. She's a student in the program, and when I found out she was a blogger, I invited her to write a piece for MNB ... and she responded with a column offering some insight into how her generation thinks and acts. It tells you something about her that she refers to herself as being a "a kid in the 90s," which is sobering to people like me, who were kids in the 50s and 60s.


If I think hard enough, I can still smell the scent of greasy, salty, hot French fries that would fill my nostrils when my Grandma took me to the McDonald’s drive through window on Saturday afternoons. When I was a kid in the 90’s, McDonald’s was successful because they understood that the average American family was composed of parents who worked part or full time. McDonald’s was a place where one could grab a meal to go or eat inside while their kids entertained themselves on the play structures provided. The toys that they gave with the kid’s meals corresponded to movies and television shows that we found popular. As a result, we found McDonald’s to be cool and relevant.

But a few things have changed since those days. Movies like Super-Size Me and a general shift towards more health conscious behavior have weakened McDonald’s value proposition. Additionally, as millennials have matured we have brought a wave of change in our consumption patterns. We value food chains that are healthful, mindful, and transparent while also being affordable and convenient.

McDonald’s new CEO Steve Easterbrook’s strategy to modernize the brand involves simplifying the menu, phasing out chicken treated with antibiotics, and increasing employee wages. However, McDonald’s has still recognized steeper declines in their stock and sales even after their restructuring plan has begun to hit stores. So why is McDonald’s still struggling?

The answer is that they are stuck at the intersection of trendy and unpleasant due to not fully implementing what millennials find valuable. While they now have hip items like kale on the menu, we still don’t want to go there because they fail to exude the “cool” factor that millennials seek. In fact, it seems as though its cooler to diss on McDonald’s then actually eat there.

Chains like Chipotle and Starbucks get it right. For instance, when in line at Chipotle one can see the employee’s sautéing chicken, peppers and the other tasty ingredients that they use in their entrees. The lighting is soft and upbeat music gives the establishment an energetic vibe. The clean wooden tables make it a convenient place to study or meet friends. Their to-go bags often feature amusing quotes from relevant comedians and actors like Aziz Ansari.

Lastly, it takes them about three minutes to make a burrito and ring a customer up. This all makes for a chain that millennials get excited to flock to. Starbucks is similar in the fact that they offer clean spaces to socialize, unique drinks, and a warm and buzzing atmosphere. They have also added healthier options to their lunch and snack assortment. Although Starbucks is a large chain, people feel comfortable there because community posters tacked to bulletin boards and the friendliness of the baristas makes for a unique experience.

So what can McDonald’s learn from these two brands? In addition to healthier eating options, millennials want a place to go that doesn’t seem sterile and institutionalized. While McDonald’s built their empire on a model that valued these qualities, it’s now in their best interest to break from these bonds and be a bit more eccentric.

So McDonald’s, please ditch the clown, turn on the Spotify playlist and start sending us promotions on Sriracha french-fries via Twitter. There are 80 million millennials out there and many of us are looking for an affordable burger place to bring our friends.

With a little innovation and rejuvenation, it could be you.

Chelsea Ware is a senior at Portland State University who is pursuing a bachelor's degree in business marketing in addition to a food industry leadership certificate. When not researching food industry trends, you can find her at Whole Foods in search of ingredients for the perfect pasta recipe.
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