McDonald’s CEO’s radical new plan: actually focus on food

March 4, 2015, 9:32 PM UTC
Photograph by Mark Duncan — AP

McDonald’s announcement today is a big deal.

In case you missed it, the fast food giant said that within the next two years it will only use chickens “raised without antibiotics important to human medicine,” and later this year will use milk from cows that are not treated with the artificial growth hormone rbST.

With McDonald’s size and scale (MCD), the move could force real change, pushing the industry and suppliers to implement new food standards across the board.

But the announcement also represents a real change for McDonald’s from a strategy perspective. Under former CEO Don Thompson, McDonald’s had pushed “Create Your Taste,” a build-your-own-burger strategy that was more focused on dressing up a burger with toppings than focusing on what was actually in the patty.

In November when I wrote I about the company’s woes, Thompson told me:

“The informal eating-out industry, most specifically the quick-service industry, is under a much higher level of scrutiny today than I’ve seen at my time in McDonald’s. People today are questioning the integrity and the quality of the food at a much higher level, and there are a lot of accusations that frankly are unfounded relative to McDonald’s. I know our supply chain. The food that we serve at McDonald’s—they’re the name brands that many people buy in grocery stores, but most people don’t know that.”

Thompson knew that he had a perception issue, but his solution was to try to convince customers that their impressions of the company and its Big Macs and McNuggets were wrong. On his watch the company launched a YouTube series featuring former MythBusters star Grant Imahara to answer customer questions about the brand’s food like is “McDonald’s beef real?”

Today’s announcement is the first big initiative from new CEO Steve Easterbrook, who officially took on the top job from Thompson on Sunday, and signals a different approach. According to one attendee of a meeting last month with analysts and investors, Easterbrook said, “We need to have a good reason to remain the same as we are.” He clearly realizes McDonald’s needs to move quickly to better align with today’s consumers. Rather than try to change people’s minds about McDonald’s, he’s changing the food in a real way. It’s a good start.

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