McDonald’s Is Doomed

I eat at McDonald’s now and then, and I like it. But last week’s news that it’s working on tech for “the restaurant of the future” tells me it’s doomed.

Publicis.Sapient and Capgemini will “be part of the team deploying and maintaining their restaurant and digital technology solutions, including kiosk ordering, web applications, mobile order and pay, that help put the customer at the center of McDonald’s business,” explained a Publicis Groupe exec in Advertising Age.

The problem is that hamburgers are at the center of McDonald’s business, not customers (or technology). 

The confusion isn’t the company’s fault, per se, insomuch that declaring your digitalness is a tax that the Tech Lobby has managed to impose on every company: God forbid you fail to mention big data or apps (or whatever) in your next analyst briefing. Even profits can be questioned, but not IT investments, which are all but holy.

McDonald’s has succumbed to this nonsense before, as I noted my Forbes column in 2014, when it announced plans to start a tech incubator in Palo Alto (where other techies reside) instead of in Omaha (where cows are found).

What’s particularly intriguing to me is how easily such stuff passes for marketing innovation. It’s as if technology will somehow bridge the growing chasm between McDonald’s old school approach to processed, commodified food, and the new school of good-for-you, unique eating.

Who needs true marketing insights or creativity if an app will do the work instead?

McDonald’s is also part of a larger story based on the utterly daft notion that the fundamental challenge for geophysical retail is to make it more like online experience. The whole point of going someplace to do something is that it’s not the same thing as accomplishing tasks from your desktop or smartphone. People who know better should question this conceit, but they don’t.

Sure, go ahead and augment it, but the selling point of reality has to be, er, reality, whether you’re selling to aging Baby Boomers, or to whatever group of suspects are trailing Millennials.

The market will catch up with this disconnect, eventually, but probably not before many companies throw lots more good money after ideas that have little to do with their business purpose or long-term viability.

What would true innovation look like? McDonald’s should disrupt itself, full stop, and then use it as the basis for real engagement with its customers.

Imagine rethinking its entire supply chain, making it not only sustainable but dependent on local sourcing. Could it violate a foundational law of branding and reimagine its menu as a localized offering, so a hamburger in Des Moines wasn’t the exact same offering as one in El Paso?

What about blowing up its real estate footprint, creating a myriad of new formats while incorporating other things (like entertainment, or whatever) into its existing ones. Where’s the McDonald’s DIY kit for home cooking, or the pre-cooked meals for microwaves?

Then there are the operational areas, like changing how it hires, trains, and rewards its employees (its Archways to Opportunity college tuition program is brilliant).

I’m talking about doing wildly innovative, difficult, and game-changing things that would make creating a digital kiosk for ordering look downright mundane by comparison.

Maybe it’s doing such things, only in secret, and the digital news is nothing more than paying its dues to the politically correct tech crowd.

But it’s just as likely that McDonald’s leadership doesn’t think it can afford to tinker too deeply with its business…opting instead for minor changes, like making breakfast an all-day offering (which was really smart, actually).

Which means it’s doomed.

I’m president of Arcadia Communications Lab, a global collaborative solely focused on helping established businesses get value from communicating about innovation. You can follow me @jonathansalem

[This essay originally appeared at Recapitalism]