The last time you played Monopoly, did you remember seeing a McDonald’s on the board? Or Burger King. Or Wendy’s, Arby’s, Subway or Taco Bell. The fast food landscape is one that is highly competitive and rapidly changing. From its years of consistent growth to its more recent struggles, perhaps no iconic brand is under the microscope more these days than McDonald’s. As is often the case when a brand is struggling, the focus shifts to internal solutions, because they are the easiest to control.

But changing leadership and simplifying menu operations may not be enough in this constantly-evolving “eating” landscape. Our look at the past 7 years of McDonald’s same-store-sales growth changes shows that the strength of McDonald’s advertising versus its competition is also key.

Based on our large database study of over 180,000 consumer interviews, we were able to glean some key facts and insights.

  • Months with strong relative ad quality for McDonald’s (where breakthrough, branding and persuasion were all strong) show on average 28% more sales growth versus months were the same metrics are average and 47% more sales versus months were the same metrics are average to below average.

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  • During 2011, a peak year of same-store growth in the US averaging close to five percent, 41% of McDonalds TV ads were significantly above average on Motivation. By 2013, when growth had slowed dramatically, only 4% of McDonalds ads were above average vs. competition on Motivation.

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  • Out of close to 450 ads McDonalds aired over the past 7 years, only 56% had a relevant message to consumers – the rest either simply communicated convenience or consumers really had no idea. In months when that happened, sales performance was 15-40% weaker vs. months with clear relevant communication.

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  • In months when McDonalds ads were not as strong as competition (no ad in the top 3), sales growth on average was 15% weaker. Starting in 2012 to today, McDonalds has had virtually no months when its advertising has been as strong as its direct competition based on our measures of breakthrough, brand linkage, motivation and message communications.

Image 4Not surprisingly, many of these same tenets (with different data) hold true for all sorts of big brands from banking to yogurt, and these patterns reinforce five valuable lessons:

  1. Even for highly-familiar brands, your messaging to customers still matters.
  2. Ad effectiveness has a much higher correlation to sales impact than media weights (7 to 10 times more impact across a variety of research studies over the past 20 years).
  3. The strength of your messaging vs. competition (not just vs. a category norm) needs to be objectively measured.
  4. Relevance can quickly fade if you are not constantly on top of market needs and changing consumer values.
  5. As much as you need to fix your house internally, never forget at the end of the day, your voice to the customer is also essential to long-term success.

So what are you saying to your consumer, and are you saying it in a way that sets you apart from the competition? And what are those competitors saying to your consumer anyway? In the game of marketing, it’s as much about what you know as who you know. And those who know, grow!

Adam Page is an Associate Research and Analytics Director at Ameritest. 
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