The blowback from some McDonald’s franchise owners was swift. According to reporting in The Wall Street Journal and Fortune, the new celebrity meal featuring hip hop stars Cardi B and Offset violated the McDonald’s “Golden Arches Code.” The violations centered on offensive song lyrics, which didn’t align with the family-friendly code of McDonald’s marketing. As a result, some franchisees refused to offer the new celebrity meal.
McDonald’s Chief Marketing Officer Tariq Hassan said, “We’re focused on putting McDonald’s at the center of culture.” And therein lies the root of the tension, the idea that there is one “culture.” While this may seem like a problem unique to large companies with big budgets, there’s a lot more here than a fight about song lyrics written by famous people.
1. Product Worldview, Not Just Communications, Shapes the Market
When companies project a liberal or conservative worldview, it’s typically through communications. Yet every product has the potential to appeal to either liberal or conservative customers, depending on how it’s designed and developed. Fitness products, for example, can skew liberal or conservative depending on the type of fitness they deliver.
The McDonald’s Cardi B and Offset celebrity meal is interesting because it’s not just celebrity endorsement - it’s a celebrity product. You eat it. And in this case, the product is clearly aligned with current popular culture, which almost always invokes liberal culture.
So when the CMO says he’s putting the brand at the center of culture, he means he’s putting it at the center of a liberal market. That’s fine if McDonald’s is trying to attract younger or more urban customers who skew more liberal. But it can come at the expense of the conservative market and overall marketing efficiencies. For example, McDonald’s is running a costly national media campaign where a significant portion is effectively wasted on the conservative audience, most likely resulting in higher customer acquisition costs. It only works if the response from the liberal customers is very strong.
2. The Liberal Market Is More Expressive, Which Includes Profanity
At the heart of the complaint by franchise owners is the offensive language found in Cardi B and Offset lyrics. Yet that type of language is often part and parcel of liberal customer culture, which is proven to be more self-expressive than conservative customer culture. Swearing is a form of self-expression.
In a study of more than ten thousand Twitter users, liberals swore a lot more than conservatives, with “f**k” and “sh*t” among the top ten words used by liberals once common terms were removed. So Cardi B and Offset employing profanity is natural for the culture in which they operate.
The lesson here isn’t to use or avoid profanity in your communications but to think about the broader idea of self-expression. For example, any business website will often show customers enjoying their products. More liberal business founders, marketing managers, or communications partners are far more likely to show customers jumping for joy or reacting in an exaggerated fashion. It can show up in the stock photography right on the home page. Without realizing it, these decisions signal a more liberal business for more liberal customers. That’s fine if the business wants to target the liberal market, but it’s rarely intentional.
Kevin Smith, professor and chair of political science at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, conducted multiple studies on liberal self-expression. He states, “we did four studies for this paper, and they all triangulate on the same thing. People can, with greater-than-chance accuracy, figure out whether you’re liberal or conservative just by looking at your face, and emotional expressivity seemed to be driving it in our analysis.”
3. Celebrity Selection Is Market Worldview Selection
It’s interesting to note that McDonald’s ran an early celebrity meal promotion with Michael Jordan in 1992 without any controversy. That’s because athletes can appeal to liberal and conservative customers. It’s one reason sports in the United States are so popular.
Athletes are the safest choice for spokespeople, even if the sport skews liberal, as the NBA does. Football and baseball athletes are the safest choices because those two sports have mostly equal appeal to liberal and conservative customers.
4. The Missing Insight: Market Worldview and Conservative Customer Reaction
McDonald’s franchise owners pushed back on the promotion, but what about customers? Fast food can skew a bit conservative due to geographic footprint. Pew Research asked conservatives and liberals if they’d prefer to see more McDonald’s or Starbucks where they live. As you might expect, liberals asked for more Starbucks, and conservatives asked for more McDonald’s. This can lead you to believe McDonald’s customers skew a little conservative.
So how does this promotion impact conservative customers? There are two possibilities: Either they ignore it just as a liberal customer might ignore a Chris Stapleton or Randy Travis meal. Or their affinity for McDonald’s diminishes, leading to slower longer-term sales growth.
The authors of a TMZ article about the promotion observed people forming lines around the block to buy the meal as proof of its success. Then you learn that the line they observed was in New York City. They may want to head east a few hours into the exurbs and look for the same result.
Solving for the impact on the “other audience,” whichever one it may be, is pretty straightforward. All McDonald’s has to do - and all you have to do when wondering how any communication may impact liberal or conservative customers - is to ask your customers and control for worldview. It’s quick and costs very little. Run the promotion or communication by customers and ask them if they are conservative or liberal or lean in either direction. If one group is positive and the other quite pessimistic about what you intend to offer, you want to think twice. If one is positive and the other is neutral, then the risk is far lower.
5. You Can Be Proactive and Save Time While Growing Your Business
When McDonald’s franchise owners complain about a celebrity promotion, think about all the extra meetings, phone calls, and communications to respond. It’s all wasted time because any business can have an intentional worldview strategy designed to drive growth with the markets that make the most sense using research that proves it.
It’s possible that given the success of celebrity meals, McDonald’s executives wouldn’t change a thing. But demonstrating how a promotion clearly drives sales while not disenfranchising conservative customers would go a long way to avoid unnecessary blowback. I recently met with a CMO of a consumer-facing software company who experienced a similar reaction from a segment of his market. The result was an unnecessary fire drill.
Most businesses may never hear back from their customers about their products and communications with regard to feeling more liberal or conservative. That’s why it’s so important to ask. Knowing the worldview makeup of your customers and your market gives you a new lever for growth that costs you very little. It may be as simple as making changes to your website or, for larger organizations, looking at their brand in a new light. It’s nothing but opportunity.