The Heart Foundation approved 10 items on the McDonalds menu. What was it thinking?

Did it imagine that this transaction would say more about McDonalds than the Heart Foundation? In the brand strength stakes, McDs easily outpoints the ‘tick’ symbol. In any partnership there is an exchange of meaning. Not always positive. A merchant bank would call it ‘name risk’. It is the danger of being associated with an entity the reputation of which doesn’t enhance your own brand.

From where I sit (out here in Consumerland) the healthy heart tick is now less powerful than it was, and McDonalds hasn’t gained much from the association, either. Why? We have two brands that mean the opposite thing. One means ‘Good for you’ and one means ‘Not good for you’. The latter is one of the most all-pervasive brands in the Western world. The other is moderately well-known locally among the health conscious.

When you put two conflicting messages together, you create confusion in the mind of the consumer. Confusion creates cognitive dissonance, which creates discomfort. Consumers have two likely responses to discomfort: flight or fight. Flight: ignore the message. Fight: attack the message.

Only McDonalds could be delusional enough to believe it could send a message that its food is healthy. It, like all clients, is too close to its products to be able to think clearly. The weight of years of accurate reports about the fat, sugar, salt, (pick an ingredient that’s bad for you) content of the world’s favourite fast food cannot be shifted into reverse by a single sponsorship. We know it’s bad for us. We don’t care. It’s accessible and (almost) acceptable as edible.

Obviously McDonalds wants to conquer the world… capture the health-conscious convenience food buyer as well as those of us who have given up trying to be good. In the process it must stretch the meaning of its brand almost beyond the breaking point. The soft heads at the Heart Foundation have stretched theirs well beyond breaking point. And it is the ‘tick’ that will lose from this encounter.

Why?

Reason 1: Because it is the weaker brand. In a one-night stand between brands, the weaker brand is the receiver. The Heart Foundation acquires more meaning from McDonald’s than vice versa. It has lost some of the tick’s potency among those who recognise it, by being associated with food that is ‘not good for you or your heart’ in the minds of its core constituents.

Reason 2: The core target audience for this communication – health conscious mothers aged 25 to 39 (I’ll bet) – need more than the shock of the tick appearing at McDonalds to convince them black is white. The message they’ll take from the exercise (I’ll bet) is, “They must be desperate for money to sell out to McDonalds.” And will it mean the same thing the next time they see the Tick on a product in the supermarket? No.

What were they thinking?

They weren’t thinking. Neither brand’s custodians thought through the implications of the alliance. Blinded by their own propaganda. Despite what the consumers think (the customer is always wrong in most marketing departments), the marketing staff convince themselves that their product is healthy. Who would want to go to work at a job where you were selling stuff that is bad for people? It is only after a year or so away from the self-inflicted brand-blindness that you can start to get a balanced view of a product or company.

And as for the tick people, when the biggest sinner in town comes calling, claiming to have seen the light and wanting to join your church, you don’t turn them away. Do you? Well, yes you do. If you know what’s good for you.

Neither organisation had a sane brain working for it on this deal. There’s not a lot of argument about principle or fundamentals in most marketing departments. They kill each other over small details. But the big blunders they dance into, all arm in arm.

‘Team player’ means ‘one who agrees with the group’. If you wanna stay, don’t make waves. Agencies start out having strong opinions, but soon become team players. I’ve never heard an agency person or consultant say, ‘Your product sucks, you know.’ Instead I’ve heard sales teams with a product that sucked, whipping themselves into a lather of positive thinking before rushing to the barricades where they encountered consumer indifference. (The consumer was obviously wrong.) They exhausted themselves and destroyed their confidence, because it wasn’t the product that sucked. Ask the team.

I have heard the CEO of an organisation describe as ‘miraculous’ a product his staff eventually relabelled ‘a shit box’ after the consumer found it to be less miraculous than the CEO. It’s about leadership. If the boss appears to be in the grip of a delusion, maybe it’s best to repeat the word ‘miraculous’ and march into battle.

A better approach is to admit the weakness of the product and plan to make allowances for it. Or, better still, take advantage of it. ‘Is it miraculous? Or a shit box? You decide.’ Or: ‘Miraculous shit box. Please consider.’