For Reasons Good And Bad, 2015 Was A Big Year For McDonald’s

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By now you’ve probably heard that McDonald’s may have managed to turn years of slumping sales around by offering customers the ability to munch on an Egg McMuffin (or biscuit, if you live in the right place) after 10:30 a.m. But before the company ultimately went the all-day breakfast route, it tried a lot (we mean a lot) of other ideas in 2015 in an attempt to claw its way back to the top of the fast food restaurant pyramid.

The road to semi-redemption for McDonald’s was a long and arduous one over the last 365 days, taking shape in a variety of ways: new leaders, many new menu items, revamped recipes, and changing perspectives on the use of antibiotics in the meat used to feed the masses.

While these changes likely caught the eye and the wallets of some patrons, nothing the Golden Arches did this year can top its foray into all-day breakfast. But despite this, we’d be remiss if we didn’t look back on the “Year of McDonald’s,” what with its head-scratching ideas and conflicting, unspoken ethos of “less is more, but more is always better.”

JANUARY

Image courtesy of Mike Mozart

The new year kicked off with the notion that the fast food giant’s menu – what with its Extra Value Meals, Happy Meals and $1 Menu – was just too cumbersome for customers. Among items franchisees wanted to see on the chopping block: the entire McCafe line. They also called for making Happy Meals less complicated

Next up, the company announced that CEO Don Thompson, who had taken much of the blame for slow sales and the revolving door of supposedly revolutionary menu changes, would retire from the top spot effective March 1.

In lieu of throwing their hands in the air like they just didn’t care, the powers-that-be over at the fast food giant opted not to appoint Mayor McCheese as Thompson’s successor, going instead for someone with a more traditional background (and an English accent), Steve Easterbrook.

But the company still had one big marketing holdover from the Thompson regime: Its much derided sunshine-and-rainbows “lovin'” campaign.

The fast food chain created a Super Bowl ad promising to reward touchy-feely customers with free food, in exchange for such legal tenderness like selfies, hugs, high fives and anything else the company deemed to be in line with the misguided marketing plan.

“From selfies, hugs to high fives – we have a bunch of fun ways to express your Lovin’,” the commercial said, showing people embracing each other in front of the cashier or calling a loved one. Customers were to be chosen randomly by McDonald’s employees to “Pay with Lovin’.”

In the end, surveys showed that people remembered the ads, but that they did nothing to get anyone hungering for a Big Mac.

February

Image courtesy of Mike Mozart

The month of love got started with McDonald’s announcing the return of Chicken Selects – at least for a limited time. McDonald’s added the menu item, in spite of professed plans to trim the number of offerings, as a way to increase its focus on poultry after reports that beef prices would increase throughout the year.

February was also the first time (at least in 2015; rumors had been whispered for years) that we started hearing inklings that something breakfast-like might be coming to the afternoons.

A poll found that 70% of fast food patrons for all restaurants wanted all-day access to breakfast, but would McDonald’s finally give the people what they really wanted?

Toward the end of the month, just days before incoming CEO Steve Easterbrook started his tenure, talk turned to McDonald’s use of antibiotics, and whether the company’s new fearless leader would cut down on the use of drugs that result in bigger cows, pigs, and chickens, but also put us all at risk for drug-resistant pathogens.

MARCH

Known for its burgers, fries, and assorted desserts, McDonald’s has never been the first place to come to mind when a health-conscious eater is looking for a quick lunch. But that didn’t stop the company from thinking about those would-be customers, as reports surfaced the eatery would add kale to the menu. The move was a bit odd, considering that McD’s had created advertisements bashing that very same veggie not long before.

Following up on consumers’ desire for breakfast, McDonald’s officially dipped its arched toes in the all-day morning meal market with tests in the San Diego area.

McDonald’s also replied to consumers’ and advocates’ concerns about antibiotic usage in its meat products, announcing it would use chickens raised without controversial antibiotics.

APRIL

While McDonald’s continuously talked about simplifying its menu, the company also decided to cut down on the ingredients that go into each item: dropping six components of its grilled chicken recipe.

For years, a number of McDonald’s franchisees had been griping with their corporate overlords about constant menu tweaks, limited-time offerings, and a push for bargain pricing.

Things seemed to come to a head in April, when a survey of franchisees indicated that the relationship wasn’t getting any better, noting the company had “jumped the shark.”

Everyone’s excitement (or the people who cared, at least) for all-day breakfast was tempered in mid-April, when the company announced that tests of the new offering wouldn’t include the full breakfast menu.

After two months on the job, CEO Steve Easterbrook proclaimed that he had a few turnaround ideas up his sleeve. While the man on top was quick to say he had a plethora of ideas, he wasn’t actually willing to share them.

The month closed out with two rather big announcements from the company. First, it cut nine items from its menu, including chicken sandwiches and Deluxe Quarter Pounder meals. Next, essentially undoing the whole simplifying thing, the eatery announced it would test another version of its elusive build-your-own program, and allow the ability for drive-thru customers to create their own burgers.

MAY

Image courtesy of Matt McGee

Steve-E’s big announcement came in early May: the company would try to turnaround its poor sales by simply getting rid of stores, selling them to franchisees. The plan had a few holes, though: franchisees already own some 81% of all the McDonald’s restaurants in the world, so it’s not like the company-owned locations are a huge financial burden.

Still, Easterbrook said McDonald’s corporate would refranchise around 3,500 of these company-owned stores to put them in the hands of franchisees, reducing the corporate ownership to just 10% of locations worldwide.

That attempt to attract customers looking for healthy meals? It’s really happening with tests of kale actually popping up at certain McD restaurants.

And just like – slapping a few leaves of kale on a burger – McDonald’s was poised to become the largest buyer of kale in the world.

The company continued its mission to simplify things in mid-May by announcing it would pare down its drive-thru menu to show only top-selling options in an attempt to speed up orders. At the same time, the company expanded its (limited) all-day breakfast test to Nashville.

Is the reason you’re not running to McDonald’s because of the buns used for its sandwiches? If not, then it probably doesn’t matter that the company said it would start toasting its sandwich casings.

“It’s these little things that add up to big differences for our customers,” Easterbook said of the company’s turnaround progress.

JUNE

Image courtesy of @McD_TriState

Little happened in June at the Golden Arches, unless of course you count pushing hot cheese on susceptible Wisconsinites and testing a new flavored hot coffee in just one area of the country.

AUGUST

McDonald’s officially beefed up its Quarter Pounder burger in August. The Golden Arches quietly increased the size of its Quarter Pounder sandwich from 4 ounces before cooking to 4.25 ounces before cooking and hasn’t yet decided if more beef should equate to a higher cost.

SEPTEMBER


In a bit of perfect timing, McDonald’s kicked off September with a pair of announcements.

First sources close to the company announced it would start using real butter in its McMuffins, biscuits and bagels, with some stores already ditching the typically used liquid margarine.

Next up, the company’s franchisees made consumers’ dreams of an all-day breakfast menu a reality by voting to take the still-limited breakfast menu nationwide starting Oct. 6.

McDonald’s followed up its double-dose of announcements with the promise to transition to only using cage-free eggs in its Canadian and U.S. restaurants… eventually.

While the company was mum on an actual deadline for the shift, Marion Gross, chief supply chain officer of McDonald’s North America, said that the shift advances “environmentally and socially conscious practices for the animals in our supply chain.”

Toward the end of the month, the company once again revamped its fancy burgers created via kiosk. In an attempt to apparently seem a bit more fancy, the burgers were rechristened as “Chef Created.”

OCTOBER

Image courtesy of @McD_TXPanhandle

Who wants plain fries when you can have sweet potato fries? That’s the question McDonald’s asked customers in October when it began tests of the sweeter fries in Texas.

NOVEMBER

Image courtesy of Consumerist Dot Com

Menu boards are a staple for just about every fast food eatery in the world: they display options, prices, calories, and other pertinent info for customers. But they don’t necessarily make it easier for people to choose their meal.

To help with this dilemma, McDonald’s announced that in 2016 it would start rolling out digital menu boards that recommends meals depending on the weather.

November was also the month for “out with the old, in with the new” at the Golden Arches: the company said it would ditch the Dollar Menu for a new McPick 2 micro menu. With the deal, customers choose two times from the menu for $2.

The McPick 2 menu includes just four options: a McDouble, a McChicken, small fries and the company’s new mozzarella sticks.

DECEMBER

Once again McDonald’s attempts to show its classier side by confirming that 600 restaurants in Southern California will serve as testing grounds for a new table service experiment.

Additionally, the company says the 600 SoCal McDonald’s locations will test the newly expanded Taste Crafted Burgers and Chicken menu.

Options on the menu include a beef patty, and grilled or buttermilk chicken paired with either a sesame seed, potato, or artisan roll. The sandwiches can then be finished with “bundled toppings” like “Buffalo Bacon,” which includes blue cheese spread, spicy buffalo sauce, applewood smoked bacon, tomato and shredded lettuce.

Mid-month brought news that the company had been looking for: all-day breakfast is bringing back customers, and their wallets.

A study found that 1-in-3 people who purchased McDonald’s breakfast during the afternoon or evening hadn’t eaten at McDonald’s at all in the previous three months, indicating that the chain is either luring in new customers or wooing back some who had given up on McD’s.

Finally, the company capped out the year with, what else, another menu addition: announcing the limited-time test of mac and cheese cups in Happy Meals.

Only time will tell if all-day breakfast and pared-down menus are enough to get people back into McDonald’s on a regular basis, or if customers are just buying McMuffins at 2 p.m. out of curiosity (hint: they still taste the same; your appreciation will depend entirely on whether that conjures up pleasant or unpleasant feelings.)