Answering the right customer questions: McDonald's Canada CMO Joel Yashinsky

On the eve of ADMA's annual Global Forum, the marketing chief talks to CMO about its 'Our food, your questions' campaign, engaging customers in the social sphere and data analytics versus creativity

Most marketers know intuitively that in order to improve their brand relevancy, they must tune into the needs and desires of the customer, and be part of the current conversation – whatever shape or form it takes. To do this, you need not only listen to the questions, but also deliver answers.

That two-way dynamic has proved the key ingredient to renewed customer engagement at McDonald's Canada, according to its CMO and vice-president of marketing and consumer business insights, Joel Yashinksy. The marketing chief is one of the brains behind the global brand giant’s ‘Our foods, your questions’ campaign, a controversial project which looked to dispel the many rumours, myths and misconceptions around every aspect of McDonald’s food products in the social sphere by tackling those questions head-on.

Kickstarted by the team in Canada in association with agency partner, Tribal DDB, the activity has quickly become a shining example of how brands can utilise social media and content to not only connect, but also influence customer perceptions in a constructive way.

Yashinsky took up the CMO’s post at McDonald's Canada in 2010 and is responsible for marketing and advertising, as well as the business insights and research and measurement teams. He has a long history with the giant food chain, joining as a marketing supervisor in the US 15 years ago and making his way up the corporate ladder through various regional and national marketing roles. Prior to joining McDonald's, he worked in sales for South West Airlines and Georgia Pacific.

Yashinsky will be speaking on McDonald’s Canada’s customer journey, the ‘Our food, your questions’ campaign, and the future of the program at this year’s ADMA Global Forum in Sydney on 7-9 August.

He told CMO the motivation for the Q&A initiative was triggered by the brand’s need to embrace social communication, and ensure its story wasn’t obscured by the rising concerns about McDonald's products and services being propagated through digital channels. These have largely been around its food and cover everything from production and delivery, to nutritional value and sustainability.

“We knew inherently we had a good story to tell, and we have always tried to make sure we provide the information customers wanted, whether it is in our restaurants, or with some of the things we do on our website,” Yashinsky said. “But we recognised that the social networks and information level across the digital landscape meant we had to get more directly involved in conversations with customers.

“We needed to find a way to tell the story without talking at customers, but with them.”

The cornerstone of the ‘Our foods, your questions’ campaign is allowing consumers to ask any question of McDonald's, and get a response in a conversational, transparent way. After much debate, the team opted to run the program through the McDonalds.ca corporate website.

“The critical aspect of this program was what we called the ‘amplification’ of information,” Yashinsky continued. “Instead of a customer sending us an email with a question and us sending them a response… we utilised Twitter and Facebook so followers and friends of that person would see the answer from McDonald's. We increased significantly the number of people that had the opportunity to see the discussions about our food taking place.”

Different formats were also used to answer questions. While the majority of the 20,000 answers to date have been in text form, McDonald's has also employed images with visual descriptions of the parts of the cow or chicken used in its food product, as well as produced 15 video responses. Utilising YouTube has allowed the company to create a wider information and engagement footprint, Yashinsky said.

“We provided video answers to some very challenging questions and did it in a transparent, open and honest format with a little bit of vulnerability,” he said. “I think the videos surprised people in that we were willing to show how ingredients go into our secret sauce, or how we create the images for merchandising these products.

“We have millions of people on the website viewing the answers, which is the piece that has us most excited.”

Despite the controversial nature of the campaign, Yashinsky said everyone knew any idea that helped address the brand questions out there would be welcomed by the executive team.

“We are working with a number of countries in assisting bringing the program forward and you’ll see some announcements in the near future about other countries taking part in the ‘Our food, your questions’ program,” he added.

Data, data and data

Much reliance is placed on customer data in the ‘Our food, your questions’ campaign, and McDonald's is using the customer behavioural and demographic information revealed by the questions to drive product and service development. So it’s not surprising Yashinsky supports more analytics in the marketing profession. He also pointed out the research department in Canada reports to the CMO because the two “go hand-in-hand”.

“If you have the right questions being asked [of the data], you will ensure you can stay focused on the customer,” he said.

“The success we have had in Canada has been from focusing on what customers want. Utilising the numbers and understanding what drives them to our brand and category are critical to success, as is communicating that information as quickly as possible.

“There is more information than ever before and you need to be able to filter through the critical components that will help guide you to make the right decisions for the customer. That in turn grows your business, your profitability and sales, your touchdowns and route to market.”

Nonetheless, a balance needs to exist between how much marketing is head and how much is heart, Yashinsky claimed. He still believes in the value of ‘gut feeling’ and the criticality of creativity in communicating with consumers.

“We didn’t go any consumer research with regards to our ‘Our foods, your questions’ program in advance of its launch. We knew in our heart of hearts that this was absolutely the right thing to do for our business and that we would see the results because of everything we knew of our brand and what was taking place in the consumer world and socially around our brand on the Internet,” he explained.

“Post-program launch, the numbers are proving how beneficial the idea is to our business.”

In addition, the Canadian team knew that the program wasn’t going to drive a certain percentage of sales in 30 days. “We knew if we could build brand trust, our brand love with customers, and they felt good about coming to McDonald's and coming more often, then they would start coming more often,” Yashinsky said.

Broader success metrics used by the Canadian marketing team include gauging brand health and customer perceptions, and how consumers feel about the food served, the quality of the food, the support, which foods they feel good about eating, and children eating. They results weren’t previously at the levels McDonald's believed they should be, and are now helping reflect the impact of the ‘Our food, your questions’ program is having an impact on customers, Yashinsky said.

“Today, customers want more information on the food they eat than ever before and we support that wholeheartedly. This allowed us to show that,” he said. “We are seeing favourable scores among many different categories and continuing to increase in terms of brand affinity in Canada.”

Yashinsky said one of the great results from its two-way consumer exchange has been learning as much, if not more, from customers as they have learnt from McDonald's.

“We are taking that information from a few different areas – the questions asked, frequency asked, the wealth of information that has come in through us program – and developing a line of products this fall that is a direct result of the feedback on one of the areas we perceived from customers that they will respond to very positively. The program has brought these things to life.”

Yashinsky’s top 4 CMO musts

  • Demonstrate leadership. “You must make decisions based on the information you have and move forward with the best of your abilities, but not get wound up in getting too much information and thinking too deeply about what you’re trying to accomplish,” he advised. “You also need to lead and manage people in a way that makes them excited about the business you’re working on.”
  • You have to own accountability for results.
  • Communication is critical and for McDonald's, needed to include working with agency partners and owner/operators. “You need to have strong communication both for your senior leadership as well as the entire system,” Yashinsky said.
  • Collaborate. “The collaboration piece is making sure everyone is working together and rowing in the same direction so you make as much speed as possible too,” he said. “Creativity and being able to open new ideas is sub functions within those key areas that have to remain top of mind.”

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