Authentically Inauthentic Volume I: The Reality of McDonald's Food
Aaron Perlut | Partner

Job #1 for any brand or organization is being authentic — true to what the brand or organization stands for, to what you tell your employees and how you articulate your value proposition to customers. If you aren’t, eventually your employees will become dismayed and customers dissatisfied.

In this first edition of Authentically Inauthentic we look at McDonald’s.

The grandaddy of fast food has always performed admirably as it relates to evolving with its customers’ tastes and lifestyle needs. Since the late 1960s, McDonald’s has emphasized building relationships with families as a means to grow the bottom line.

In 1970, ad agency Needham, Harper & Steers created the family-friendly “McDonaldland” series of commercials with various characters like the Hamburgler trying to steal food items, ultimately foiled by Ronald McDonald. The company also built playgrounds at restaurants, launched Happy Meals with toys in 1979, began offering healthier options when health became more important over the past 15 years, and when sales struggled a few years ago, turned breakfast into a 24-hour offering.

But where McDonald’s has consistently failed from an authenticity standpoint is, in my mind, at ground zero: The misleading advertising of its food. The beauty shots in ads look remarkable and mouthwatering. And then there’s the reality of what McDonald’s actually serves.

The most astute executives I know tend to, at least initially, focus on two primary issues: Perform the core function of your business well and anticipate what’s next before your customers do. Where McDonald’s excels is on the latter, but when it comes to the basics of promoting the reality of its product — the burger chain fails miserably on the Authentically Inauthentic success meter.

Contrast McDonald’s with Domino’s pizza, a brand that remade its reputation over the past decade through a commitment to authentically recognizing it needed to improve its product. And while many brands will campaign their way out of a problem and then revert back to old habits, Domino’s has stayed the course and appears to grasp its position as an affordable fast-food option.

Just visit the brand’s Instagram account to get a taste (ahem) of its no-frills strategy: simply posting real, in-restaurant pictures of what a Domino’s pizza actually looks like when it’s delivered. Crazy, huh? Maybe not so much.


Authenticity matters — for any brand, including fast food. McDonald’s lack of authenticity as it relates to its ads and food quality has provided competitors with an open window to poke the bear (Wendy’s “Where’s the Beef” comes to mind) while providing the Hardee’s brand rebirth when it embraced the McDonald’s alternative — serving monster thick burgers that were actually, well, monsters.

Would McDonald’s ever follow the Domino’s playbook and share raw photographs of its offerings? Perhaps breakfast, as millions of Americans gobble it up every day. However, I doubt it would take a chance on the burgers when it can simply continue down its inauthentic path.

*if you want to see an inside look at McDonald’s product vs. advertising, here’s something the brand did in Canada.

Aaron Perlut

A former senior Omnicom (FleishmanHillard) counselor and communications executive for two of the nation’s largest energy companies, Aaron has spent more than 20 years in media and marketing helping a range of organizations — from Fortune 500s to professional sports franchises to economic development authorities to well-funded startups to non-profits — manage reputation and market brands in an evolving media environment.

An early adopter in the social media space, creating online communities and working closely with bloggers before they became accepted in mainstream media, Aaron develops unique marketing communications and reputation management strategies meant to break through the clutter of today’s crowded media environment that straddle both new and traditional media realms and has counseled organizations including H&R Block, Capital One, the St. Louis Regional Chamber, CafePress, the National Football League, aisle411, SunEdison, LockerDome, UPS, Anheuser-Busch InBev, Charter Communications, Papa John’s, and the Karate Kid Haircut Association.

He began his career as a television producer and continues to contribute to media including AdWeek, ForbesSocialMediaToday, VentureBeat, HuffingtonPost, ESPN.com and other outlets.

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