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Opinion: McDonald's goes pro-active in nutrition wars

NEW YORK - With the coming release of the film 'Fast Food Nation', the nutrition wars are heating up again and McDonald's, as the global fast-food leader and perennial heavy, is preparing for battle.

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It faced a similar foe in the form of Morgan Spurlock's 'Super Size Me' in 2004. So this time around, it goes into the skirmish having set up a variety of measures that better position it to emerge with a less battered brand.

This autumn, the Richard Linklater movie version of 'Fast Food Nation', author Eric Schlosser's controversial indictment of the fast-food industry, hits theatres, after creating a stir at the Cannes Film Festival. In the interim, 'Chew On This: Everything You Don't Want to Know About Fast Food', an adaptation of Schlosser's book geared to teen readers, is now hitting UK bookstands.

Finding McDonald's once again directly in the cross-hairs, experts waited for the giant to go on the defensive and employ the same heavy-handed tactics and aggressive PR that arguably caused more damage to its reputation than expected throughout the seven-year "McLibel" English court action, the publication of 'Fast Food Nation', and Spurlock's indie-film 'super Size Me', combined.

Instead, what has emerged is a kinder, gentler McDonald's -- one that is a lot more savvy about its brand, what it represents to customers and how far that allows it to stretch in its offerings and influence, and the simple truth that the war will be won less on words than on its deeds.

The fact is that fast food and nutrition are never going to be synonymous. Customers have been flocking to McDonald's since Ray Kroc first erected the golden arches in 1955, not because of nutritional value, but because of convenience and, yes, the satisfying taste of a Quarter Pounder with Cheese accompanied by well-salted fries and a thick chocolate shake.

Still, the McDonald's brand carries other associations, as well -- as a family-friendly gathering place and as a restaurant that offers more choices and options - some of which may actually be healthier than the standard fare for those who choose to partake. It is also an influential business that can wield its substantial clout for public benefit as a means of enhancing the positive associations with its brand.

For the last two years, McDonald's has been making a concerted effort to leverage these associations. In early 2004, it backed out of its defensive mode with nutrition critics by embracing a new offensive themed around its commitment to balanced lifestyles and its Go Active! campaign.

Importantly, it has put real meat behind the initiative.

It aligned itself with Paul Newman by packaging its salads with the Newman's Own line of dressings. The Paul Newman brand is well known for its "dedication to the common good", and the association transferred no small amount of equity into McDonald's own brand bank.

With its Go Active! campaign, it has taken the public service route, enlisting such sports stars as tennis great Serena Williams and Brazilian gold medal gymnast Diego Hypolito to share their fitness tips in a special section of its website.

McDonald's has also tapped into talk celebrity Oprah Winfrey's personal trainer, Bob Greene, to represent McDonald's in messaging around a balanced lifestyle. Such endorsers have been a tremendous boost in lending credibility to McDonald's on the health and fitness front.

McDonald's has also built on its campaign with a meaningful scope of actions. In June, for example, it opened the McDonald's Cycle Centre in downtown Chicago -- a facility that provides enclosed parking for 300 bikes, bicycle rentals and repair services, showers and lockers. The centre represents McDonald's commitment not just to fitness in the way it promotes bicycle commuting, but its interest in reducing traffic and air pollution.

And in May, McDonald's reinforced its commitment to the family values that are integral to its brand by forming a Global Moms Panel. This group is intended to provide input on lifestyle and nutrition topics to help the company better serve the needs of its customer families, both inside and outside of its restaurants.

As the nutrition wars gear up once again, McDonald's can be expected to take some defensive manoeuvres. Advertising, for example, is a given; silence on the issue could be read as an admission of guilt. However, it more likely will follow the UK strategy when 'Super Size Me' hit the theatres: McDonald's rationally agreed with the movie's premise while highlighting the healthy additions they were making to the menu.

But on the whole, McDonald's pro-activity around the balanced lifestyle initiative will have gone a long way toward nurturing the positives of its brand and blunting potential damage in the latest round of the nutrition war.

Linklater's 'Fast Food Nation' stars Ethan Hawke alongside Greg Kinnear, Kris Kristofferson and Avril Lavigne. It is released in the UK on November 10 and is distributed by Tartan Films.

Scott Davis (sdavis@prophet.com) is a senior partner, and Ruth Saunders (rsaunders@prophet.com), an associate partner, with Prophet, a global consultancy specialising in the integration of brand, business and marketing strategy.

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