Hitting blind spots on the way to gold? Olympics ads remind marketers to sweat the data details
Columnist Joshua Reynolds takes a look at McDonald’s ad strategy during the Games, how Panera Bread moved in on the fast-food giant's blind spot and what marketers can learn from the outcome.
If you tuned into the recent Rio Olympics, you saw many inspiring acts of athletic transcendence — and probably an equal or greater number of commercials.
It’s always interesting to see what brands do when they know they’re guaranteed a huge audience — the threads of consumer conversation they’ll try to engage, the threads to which they’ll turn deaf ears, and so on. More and more, these decisions feel like a study in blind spots.
These blind spots are overlooked drivers of consumer spending. As marketers, we’re always seeking the most resonant messages, which increasingly means using data to find the consumer conversations with which to engage. It’s easy to get a general sense of consumer sentiment with even a basic data operation. But sentiment doesn’t pay the bills.
All too often, there’s a massive gap between buzz and sentiment versus actual revenue upside and business performance — and when marketers run into that gap, they can be blindsided by the financial consequences.
New products flop despite lots of hype. Competitors home in on small flaws in messaging to steal share. The consequences are vast and varied.
Bringing this back to Rio, we’ll focus on the large chunks of ad time McDonald’s bought during the Games, and the response these ads elicited from Panera Bread. This public interaction between two large brands alludes to their respective sense of blind spots — and marketers have much to learn from this comparison.
McDonald’s customers: Looking for conversation outside GMOs?
As a longtime flagship sponsor of the Olympics, McDonald’s ran a slew of ads during the Games. There was the one in which nuggets tumble across the screen like gymnasts, revealing themselves to be not just any nuggets but new, GMO-free nuggets made from all-white meat.
And the nostalgic ad about a father and daughter — that one features those new GMO-free nuggets, too. More wide-ranging, with a vaguely “morning in America” tone, was the “Commitment” spot, in which McDonald’s claims it is doubling down on fresher, healthier ingredients because it’s heard what customers want.
In a sense, McDonald’s was unequivocally right to focus on healthier menu options. No one doubts that quick-serve restaurants (or QSRs) like McDonald’s have lost business as consumers have become more aware of the health risks of fried food. But in messaging its efforts, McDonald’s emphasized improvements in ingredients while leaving the resulting health benefits mostly implicit and abstract.
In other words, McDonald’s clearly tapped the right general idea — but in executing on this idea, it started privileging some strands of consumer conversation over others.
This doesn’t mean the ad will be unsuccessful. Many parents may feel less conflict about buying chicken nuggets for their kids. And I have to admit, the new nuggets taste better.
But McDonald’s has already faced criticism for offering healthier menu options that still aren’t particularly good for you. Earlier this year, newspapers lampooned the company for a kale salad with more calories than many burgers.
More recently, a reporter critiquing the brand’s Olympics campaign remarked that McDonald’s wants us to welcome its admission that it needs to serve healthier food while also feeling nostalgic about all the unhealthy food we used to eat.
This criticism might just be media buzz, of course — but research from my employer, Quantifind, suggests a significant portion of McDonald’s buyers have scoffed at the company’s attempts to offer healthier food.
The research correlated consumer text data and QSR receipt data to identify QSR buyers and their conversation patterns. It reinforces that consumers know high-calorie salads aren’t all that healthy, and that a faction of consumers actively resents when brands exaggerate a product’s nutritional value. Some other notable research findings include:
- McDonald’s healthier menu items haven’t discouraged fitness-minded consumers from viewing the brand as a temptation, with many complaining that two minutes in the drive-through negates two hours of hard work at the gym.
- McDonald’s buyers continue to discuss weight gain concerns at about the same rate as in the past, despite the introduction of many healthier menu options.
- Buyer conversation suggests increasing awareness of diseases to which fast food can contribute.
You might have noticed that McDonald’s Olympics ads didn’t pick up any of these specific conversation threads. The commercials could have linked the GMO-free nuggets more explicitly to a health benefit, such as reductions in disease likelihood. They could have emphasized menu items that can provide healthy protein boosts before the gym or rewarding but nutritious snacks after.
Panera targets a blind spot
Time will tell whether McDonald’s chose the right focus — but Panera certainly doesn’t think so. Days after McDonald’s rolled out its Olympics ads, Panera CEO Ron Shaich castigated his competitor’s strategy, telling Business Insider, “I thought, ‘You’ve got to be kidding.’ Sure, you’ve got McNuggets that are preservative-free, but what are you dipping them in? Sauces that are filled with that stuff!”
Following Shaich’s words, Panera announced it will remove preservatives and artificial sweeteners from all its breakfast items aimed at children, and challenged competitors to meet its standard.
How marketers look for blind spots
For marketers, the interplay between McDonald’s and Panera illustrates that when large brands try to fortify vulnerabilities, they often focus on some areas while leaving others exposed. Sometimes a brand leaves an area exposed because it’s a fringe issue that doesn’t really matter.
But other times, as Panera is hoping will be the case with McDonald’s, the brand is blind to the revenue implications of certain consumer conversations — letting a more plugged-in competitor swoop in to steal market share.
How can marketers distinguish legitimate blind spots from innocuous noise?
The first key is to distinguish revenue-correlated consumer data from all the rest. But beyond that, marketers still need an explanatory approach that peers into the buyer motivations beneath the metrics.
It’s not enough to know that revenue falls as health concerns increase. Brands have to know why and how consumers’ buying behaviors intersect with these concerns. It’s the only way for marketers to know which messages matter to their brand’s performance and to avoid getting blindsided when a competitor seizes on an underappreciated shift in buyer trends.
- Reading broad consumer sentiment isn’t enough. You have to separate noise from the signals that affect revenue.
- Even after you’ve identified revenue drivers, you need to probe underlying customer motivations. Use consumer text data and KPI data to identify revenue-correlated consumer language patterns, then use these patterns to understand how drivers operate.
- Most brands don’t fully engage in the consumer conversations that drive revenue. This failure creates blind spots that can foil a well-intentioned campaign and that can be exploited by competitors paying closer attention to the nuances.