Strong Storytelling in McDonald’s Supplier Videos … But Do They Work?

More to the point, do they fortify the McDonald’s brand?

I can understand McDonald’s quest to associate with suppliers who take a certain “hand-crafted” approach to their products. The message serves as a counterbalance to the perception that McDonald’s is all about volume production.

Stepping back for a moment, the execution of this campaign is pretty darn good.

Click on “Lettuce,” and farmer Dirk Giannini appears with the sound of sprinklers and the periodic bird chirp in the background.

McDonalds Supplier storytelling

Moving to the video, the savvy storytelling from McDonald’s puts Dirk in the hero’s boots.

Too often companies insist since they’re footing the bill, they get the hero’s billing.

And it’s not easy duty to make lettuce interesting. While no one is going to springboard from this narrative to a potential blockbuster called “Return of Iceberg Lettuce,” it’s still a high-quality video.

But back to the big picture –

Does the supplier campaign bring “goodness” to the McDonald’s brand?

As much as I like the execution, the answer is no.

Branding efforts often include an aspirational spoke, a noble cause. Yet, if the gap between the reality of the brand and the aspiration becomes too great, the work loses credibility. In short, the audience doesn’t believe it.

That’s the flaw in the McDonald’s campaign. The reality of the brand, whether it be the dollar menu or interiors that affirm the prophecy in The Graduate — “I just want to say one word to you … plastics,” is congruent with the aspiration.

When Dirk the farmer utters the phrase “field to fork” in the video, what was already strained credibility becomes nonsense.

Bad branding.

As a sanity check, when I guest lectured at the USC Annenberg School of Communications, I played the lettuce video and asked the class for their reaction. Every student thought it was BS (baloney stuff).

While not exactly scientific research, I think it’s safe to say that McDonald’s should not be channeling Alice Waters.


Lebron James News Broke Here, Contrast and Visual Storytelling to Guide Bathroom Behavior

I invented the grab bag post as a forum to share three vignettes on business storytelling that otherwise couldn’t stand on their own.

And here’s the latest …

Serendipitous Nature of Social Media Breaks LeBron James News on My Twitter Feed

On Friday LeBron James officially announced that he is taking his talents back to Cleveland.

But my Twitter followers who have put up with my bad puns and periodic snark were rewarded on Thursday when Bud Shaw, sports journalist at the Cleveland Plain Dealer, passed the following tweet my way.

Bud Shaw Tweet on  LeBron James

That’s right.

Leaving nothing to interpretation — unless you think Lyndon Johnson’s grave is headed to Cleveland — we knew LeBron’s decision on Thursday.

Contrast as a Storytelling Technique

Journalists, the masters of business storytelling, depend on contrast as a staple in their writing.

Communicators would be wise to follow suit. No question, contrast is one of my favorite storytelling techniques.

Here’s one quick example from The Wall Street Journal and its coverage of the Mexico/The Netherlands World Cup match.

The contrast — simply put, more orange than green — tells a story of Dutch control.

The Wall Street Journal and its coverage of the Mexico/The Netherlands World Cup match visual storytelling

Now, take a look at the graphic with only data on The Netherlands.

The Wall Street Journal and its coverage of the Mexico/The Netherlands World Cup match visual storytelling

The storytelling disappears.

Contrast by definition must contain a frame, communicating the difference between point A and point B.

Most companies want to jump right to point B, especially if point A depicts any semblance of a negative light.

Visual Storytelling Meant to Guide Bathroom Behavior

Most of us in business communications come by way of words.

We recognize the increasing importance of visual storytelling, but making the shift can feel like asking Dairy Queen to offer healthy alternatives. Anyone up for a kale blizzard? Not exactly a natural transition.

The head of our Beijing office, Lucia Liu, passed on this example of visual storytelling posted on a Sina weibo account (Chinese micro blogging platform).

You don’t need to read Chinese to get the gist of these visuals or the levity.

Chinese Weibo visual storytelling

Chinese Weibo visual storytelling

Chinese Weibo visual storytelling

I particularly liked the first image discouraging people from standing in the trash can while dropping the paper towel on the floor. I can see how that might be a problem.




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The Walmart/New York Times Spat Reveals a Bigger PR Trend

There’s no question that the rise of owned media has both emboldened companies and shaped more of a peer-to-peer relationship with journalists.

In the old days, if a company took issue with a critical article, it might write a letter to editor, contact the publication’s ombudsman or cajole a correction out of the journalist’s boss. These actions seem downright quaint in today’s world in which companies can use owned media to blast away and deliver their point of view directly to the target audience.

In some cases, a company’s digital properties command a larger following than the publications that report on it.

While that’s the not the case in the Walmart-NYT “disagreement,” this situation provides another indicator of the evolving balance of power between the media and the companies it covers. The humble servant-master relationship is quickly becoming a relic of the past.

Playing the role of your seventh-grade English teacher with red pen in hand, Walmart’s David Tovar wrote a post that literally marked up the NYT article for what he considered to be shoddy treatment.


Walmart corporate blog post correcting NYT article Corporate Daddy

We’d expect Elon Musk to do battle with the NYT for a perceived slight.

I didn’t think Walmart had the chutzpah to counter punch one of the most influential papers in the country.

Still, it makes sense.

In an environment where anyone can step onto a digital pulpit, why wouldn’t Walmart aggressively insert its voice into the NYT story and try to diffuse the negative? And if it can be done with a bit of cleverness, all the better.

There’s virtually no downside.

Walmart certainly isn’t counting on NYT journalist Timothy Egan to make the pilgrimage to Bentonville for a détente. Would the NYT as a publication now treat Walmart more harshly? Unlikely. If anything, its various editors will be more sensitive about ensuring that Walmart gets a fair shake.

Obviously, I don’t have access to the analytics for the Walmart corporate blog, but the 300+ comments indicate the post reached a sizable audience. Perhaps more revealing, the social shares for the post tallied 4,774, including 39 journalists.

MuckRack Walmart corporate blog post correcting NYT article Corporate Daddy

My only quibble is that the post would have been even stronger if someone outside the communications function bylined it.

Still, I think it’s fair to say that the post turned into brand-building action and one that we’ll be seeing more of in the future.

Side note: Ari Rabin-Havt offers a different perspective, writing “Wal-mart flunks its fact-check: The truth behind its sarcastic response to the Times” for Salon. If this was a debate class, Ari definitely earned an “A.” But he misses the bigger picture. There is a sizable audience (not already sympathetic to the Wal-mart cause) who believe the company showed guts in standing up to the New York Times.

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Does Failure Make for Compelling Storytelling?

A Look at the Publication Headlines from Countries Bounced from the Start of the World Cup Knock-out Round

We already know the answer to the headline question.

Virtually every great novel and movie depend on failure to bring tension to the story.

And are there few things more painful than seeing your country fight its way through World Cup group play only to get sent home during the first stage of the knock-out round?

Thinking it would be a cathartic experience – again, I stand by my earlier vow to never eat another waffle – we’ve captured sample publication headlines from all the countries that exited the World Cup during the start of the knock-out round.


Newspaper: El Mercurio

Headline Translation: Maximum Penalty

Analysis: The photo serves up the anguish with the headline taking a supporting role. Hopefully, someone eventually gave Number 2 a hug as well.

Chile soccer team World Cup 2014


Newspaper: El Pais

Headline Translation: We Lost It

Analysis: Always enjoy a double entendre in the headline.

Uruguay soccer team World Cup 2014


Newspaper: El Sol de Mexico

Headline Translation: Dramatic defeat of Mexico; Holland qualifies for quarter finals

Analysis: Another case where the photo more than the headline communicates the painful outcome.

Mexico Soccer team World Cup 2014


Newspaper: Sentra Goal

Headline Translation: Too Bad, But You Made us Proud

Analysis: It sounds like the writer of this headline had just finished an essay on Greece’s economic quagmire.

Greece soccer team World Cup 2014


Newspaper: The Sun

Headline: Team France Clip Eagle’s Wings

Analysis: Eh.

Nigeria soccer team World Cup 2014


Newspaper: Echorouk

Headline Translation: “Desert Warriors” Bid Farewell to the World Cup with Pride

Analysis: Algeria shows it’s a glass-is-half-full nation.

Algeria soccer team World Cup 2014


Newspaper: 20 Minuten

Headline Translation: Bitter send off for Switzerland!

Analysis: Now there’s an adjective that packs an emotional punch, “bitter.”

Switzerland soccer team World Cup 2014


Publication: The New Yorker

Headline: Hail to the Alamo, Team USA Goes Down Fighting

Analysis: Nothing like conjuring high school history to find the perfect metaphor. The Alamo didn’t end well for the U.S., nor did the match against Belgium.

USA soccer team World Cup 2014

Until the World Cup returns in 2018 in Russia, I’ll take solace in the cliché, “misery loves company.”

For the Nigerians, Greeks, Chileans, and others who made this class, enjoy!

Side note: It periodically takes a village to raise a post. Thanks go to Megan Hernbroth (research), Luica Mak (translation), Shereen Massoud (translation) and Leslie Posada (translation) for their helping hands.

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Writing Executive Quotes That Sound Like They Come From Actual Human Beings

The executive quote serves as a mainstay of PR-generated content from news releases to prepared statements.

With rare exception, they’re dreadful.

It’s as if each quote goes through the following process in which a conscious effort is made to squeeze out any semblance of humanity:

Executive Quote chart for humanity- storytelling

The upshot —

PR ends up crafting quotes like this one that then get flung to the world.

Typical PR executive quote

The quote does nothing to advance the narrative.

Worse, it’s more dull than an episode of CSPAN debating the merits of wildlife in national parks.

For a role model on doing quotes right, we surprisingly turn to the U.S. Soccer Federation. In fact, the organization goes one step further, essentially creating atomized storytelling that journalists can easily feather into their stories. Putting the heartbreak from yesterday’s loss to Belgium aside (I’m not bitter, but I’ll never eat another waffle), this is worth a drill down.

The Federation puts out what’s termed “The World Cup Quote Sheet” with select players and head coach Jurgen Klinsmann commenting on both recent outcomes and what’s ahead. Quotes such as the following — in-depth commentary allows journalists to pull slices into their stories — were distributed after the match with Germany:


On advancing from the Group of Death:

JK: “It’s huge. We wanted a tie out of this game, but maybe in the beginning we had a bit too much respect [for Germany]. Then, more and more, we got into the game. We should have created a bit more chances. That’s really something we have to improve on, but overall, tremendous energy, tremendous effort from the whole side. It’s huge for us getting out of this group that everybody said, ‘You have no chance.’ We took that chance and now we move on. We really want to prove a point.”

U.S. MNT goalkeeper TIM HOWARD
On getting out of the Group of Death:

TH: “Proud of our group; we have a lot left in us. Today was a tough game in tough conditions. Hats off to Germany, I think they have an opportunity to win the World Cup, that’s how good I think they are. We had a chance right there at the end, but we go again, we get to the Round of 16. It shows how far we’ve come. That we’re not happy just getting there, that we want to progress , and we still got a little bit left in us.”

On Jermaine Jones possibly breaking his nose:

CD: “I guess that’s the way it goes. We have a team that has a lot of heart, a lot of character. We keep going, we keep fighting. I’m sure, if he did break his nose, just like what happened to me, he’ll be ready for the next game.”

These comments do sound like they’re coming from actual human beings.

Equally important, the Federation’s PR team directs the commentary based on anticipating how journalists will round out their stories.

That’s why you have Clint Dempsey who broke his nose in the first match offering up a quote on Jermaine Jones who appeared to suffer a similar fate. Can anyone doubt that the line “I guess that’s the way it goes” really came from the mouth of Dempsey?

As a result, journalists do use these quotes because they add texture to their stories (search on “Klinsmann” and “It’s huge” shows that the phrase found its way into well over 100 stories).

I think there’s room for business communicators to borrow this concept.

At the very least, we should be writing executive quotes that pass the sound test; i.e., does it sound like something a person would actually say?


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