Simplifiers Interview: Deborah Wahl, CMO of McDonald’s USA

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Behind every brand delivering simpler experiences for customers is a leader who recognizes the inherent value in keeping things simple. Here I interview marketing leaders and founders of brands that have performed well in the Global Brand Simplicity Index. In this Simplifiers interview, I speak with Deborah Wahl, CMO of McDonald’s USA. 

MM: What does McDonald’s stand for, and how does it deliver on that promise every day?

DW: We’re aligned around a global purpose: making delicious feel-good moments easy for everyone. Having this brand purpose helps us determine how we manage operations and the way we deliver service to our guests.

MM: What role does simplicity play in delivering on that promise?

DW: A key role. Today’s consumer is inundated with information. We try to make their lives simpler in a few ways.

First, we’ve simplified our menu. Previously, we were trying to deliver everything the consumer wanted and the menu got unwieldy. Having too many choices was stressful for customers. So we simplified, going back to the basics of what our guests love.

Second, we’ve focused our marketing strategy on developing bigger and simpler marketing platforms. We used to launch a new offer each month with a new idea, name and platform. This was confusing, so we started focusing on consistent platforms that offer the variety consumers want in a consistent way they can keep track of.

Third, we’re simplifying the food itself. From what’s in the food—eliminating artificial colors, preservatives and hormones—to how we prepare it—only using freshly cracked eggs and fresh fruit.

MM: What are the challenges in creating simple experiences for guests?

DW: In retail, it’s often new offerings that bring people in. But if you have too many new offerings, it confuses guests. We’re exploring ways to serve that craving for the newest thing in an organized fashion. Despite the fact that news drives traffic, people also crave consistency.

MM: What are the benefits McDonald’s is experiencing around simplifying?

DW: By simplifying, we’ve seen increased crew productivity, a better product and ultimately a better guest experience.

Simplicity has a big effect financially as well. From increased sales because customers respond positively to products, to decreased spend on advertising and superfluous initiatives. Simplifying eliminates waste that comes with inefficiency and allows you to focus on what makes the biggest impact.

MM: How do you strive to keep things simple for your Marketing team?

DW: We recently took a step back to look at the entire customer experience and realized that a unique brand voice is more important than ever, especially now that we have so many channels of communication. As we fluidly communicate across channels, we work to ensure our brand voice remains consistent and strong.

MM: How do you lead as a simplifier?

DW: I’ve invested in building a sturdy marketing communication architecture. It’s important to be clear on process and brand voice. This goes back to the Marine philosophy: You have the mission and the purpose, but you don’t tell people how to do their job every step of the way, you give them a framework and they know how to get the job done.

MM: What’s the most recent simple customer experience you’ve had?

DW: I love what United Airlines has been doing. I travel a lot and have found that United has done a great job of personalizing their services—like menu and seating options—according to travelers’ needs.

MM: What’s the top piece of advice you’d give to other brands trying to simplify?

DW: Always start with the aim of creating value for your customer. Keep the brand strategy and customer journey top of mind. Don’t be distracted by different channels—in most cases, the same customers are using all the channels. Look at the customer journey in a holistic way. 

MM: What do you think c-level executives need to do to operationalize simplicity?

DW: Simplicity has to be a goal the entire organization works toward. Simplicity comes when you focus on what has the biggest impact, and align all departments and resources around pursuing it. Bring simplicity into the conversation around performance objectives and how resources are allocated. Give your team permission to get rid of the little projects in favor of focusing on the bigger things.

MM: What’s the biggest mistake brands make regarding simplifying?

DW: It’s easy to prioritize the wrong thing. For example, we offer lots of sauces to accompany our Chicken McNuggets. The data said hot mustard was the least popular so we eliminated it. Well, we didn’t realize how passionate the hot mustard fans were. When we eliminated it, there was a massive outcry on social media. So we brought it back.

MM: How would you define simplicity?

DW: In the marketing context, simplicity is focusing on what adds the most value to your customer.

This interview of Deborah Wahl, chief marketing officer of McDonald’s USA, was conducted, edited and condensed by Margaret Molloy.

This is one in an ongoing Simplifiers series. See interviews with Spotify CMO, Seth Farbman; Ally CMO, Andrea Riley; former Target EVP and CMO, Jeff Jones; Direct Line Group Marketing Director, Mark Evans; President of Jet.com, Liza Landsman and VP of Marketing at Jet.com, Sumaiya Balbale.

Margaret Molloy is global CMO and head of business development at Siegel+Gale. Follow her on Twitter: @MargaretMolloy and Instagram: @MargaretMMolloy

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