June 8th, 2007

McDonald's Recruits Mom to Be Ultimate Influencer

By Kate Macarthur
Advertising Age

It may be the mother of all influencer-marketing efforts. Battered by attacks blaming the fast-food industry for making children fat, McDonald’s Corp. is recruiting the gatekeeper for its side. The Golden Arches has been quietly amassing an army of moms—often its toughest critics—as “quality correspondents” to act as citizen consumer reporters. The idea is to spread the message—which it hopes to craft into a positive one—about McDonaldland and its products.

Going ‘behind the counter’

It’s opening its kimono to these moms, offering them “behind-the-scenes access to the farms [where] our fresh ingredients are grown, to our world-class suppliers and to our restaurants,” according to an open-call letter sent to prospects through mother-oriented social networks and freebie product sites. “These moms will go behind the counter and beyond the kitchen to see what we’re made of. Plus, this will be a unique opportunity to see for yourself and get to share what you learn about food quality, nutrition, and preparation with other moms across the country,” said the letter, signed by Susan Forsell, U.S. VP-McDonald’s Quality Systems.

McDonald’s declined to divulge details of the plan, other than to say it will soon announce the winning moms. But a spokesman did say, “We’ll provide them with avenues to be able to share their findings.” Presumably that includes blogs, chat rooms and public forums to spread brand evangelism from a group known to be skeptical, protective—and, with $2 trillion in buying power, the keeper of the lunch money.

Selected moms are expected to participate in as many as three “field trips” lasting two to three days, and receive payment for “reasonable travel expenses.” The concept is slightly different from McDonald’s “Global Moms Panel,” where women receive a stipend for advising the fast-food giant on its products, and marketing and representing the motherly point-of-view at press and other official company events. Instead of commenting on the process, these moms will shape public perception of it.

‘A person like yourself’

“That’s a hell of a good idea,” said Richard Edelman, CEO of PR agency Edelman, noting that “a person like yourself” was rated the most credible spokesperson in its annual “Trust Barometer” survey for the past two years. “This is a very healthy development for McDonald’s and for corporate America in general to facilitate that kind of dialogue. It’s a good way for McDonald’s to listen.”

According to the eighth annual survey conducted by StrategyOne for the public-relations giant, “a person like you” is seen as twice as credible as a CEO and just slight better than an academic or doctor. (McDonald’s is not an Edelman client.)And in a world dominated by reality TV, consumer-generated content and bloggers, the mom team is the natural evolution from the over-the-backyard-fence communications of years past.

“Moms are the ultimate internet networkers,” said Debra Aho Williamson, senior analyst at eMarketer.com in an earlier interview. “They seek out other moms’ advice for what they’re looking for.” According to Ms. Williamson, 18.4% of U.S. internet users were females with children under 18 in the house, a number predicted to rise to 36.6 million by 2010. Blog-ad firm Blogads in March reported that the average mom-blog reader is a 29-year-old female with annual income of $70,000.

Interestingly, McDonald’s trust scores among college-educated, informed domestic opinion leaders ages 35 to 64 are at their highest levels in eight years, according to the Edelman survey. But McDonald’s has admitted that its brand trust scores among moms aren’t in line with its sales run.

The idea is similar to what Microsoft has begun with bloggers on its Xbox forum in what Mr. Edelman calls the “horizontal access of communications.” He said the comments on GM Vice Chairman Bob Lutz’s Fastlane blog are read at executive committee meetings. “Consumers are holding companies accountable,” said Mr. Edelman. “If they’re going to talk, they want to be listened to.”

More than just a mouthpiece

And they want to be more than just a mouthpiece. “If it’s an honest two-way dialogue everybody benefits,” said Isabel Kallman, CEO of Alpha Mom. According to Ms. Kallman, Alpha Moms are 18 to 39 with household incomes above $75,000; 81% log on to the internet for advice. “McDonald’s has a real opportunity to learn from the most powerful purse-string holders of all. It’s kind of like the village concept. That’s why I think this could be very, very powerful.” But she warned that McDonald’s must be authentic and sincere in reflecting mother opinions, or suffer the backlash.

“They will tell their friends if they like something if they think it’s of value, but if they think it’s harmful they’ll tell even more people,” she said.

To be sure, news travels fast in the “momosphere,” and mothers are quick to offer their often-skeptical opinions. On FatWallet.com, comments bounced from “Could be a plot to supersize your children” to “Now, they’re grabbing mothers with this ‘friendly’ program. What’s next, football tickets for the dads? McMommys, watch out!!”


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