This weekend The New York Times published an important piece on how the bottom-line success of McDonald’s has left burger rivals Wendy’s and Burger King in the dust. The average, free-standing McDonald’s restaurant pulled in nearly $2.6 million in sales last year, up 13 percent since 2008, despite a sluggish economy.
Times reporter Keith O’Brien points to a number of reasons for the impressive growth: An estimated $2 billion advertising budget. New menu items. Newly remodeled restaurants. Even the McRib, “the highly processed pork sandwich whose popularity baffles even some at McDonald’s,” he writes.
Another important and successful strategy? Outreach to bloggers. Specifically, mommy bloggers, one of the most powerful groups of writers on the Internet these days. The tactic is known as brand work, and it’s intended to change the perception of fast food among women who are largely in charge of food choices for their family.
How big of a priority is this audience? So big, they’re given access to Jan Fields, the president of McDonald’s U.S.A.
In 2010 McDonald’s invited 15 influential bloggers to the company’s headquarters for a look-see, which included McFlurries in the test kitchen, a tour to the Ronald McDonald House, and more. The bloggers were asked to post about their trip, and the effort was so successful that in August 2011 the company sent Fields to San Diego for the BlogHer conference, where McDonald’s arranged for a private luncheon for 25 bloggers.
And McDonald’s is far from the only food company trying to harness the power of moms who blog. Jennifer James, editor of Mom Blog magazine, writes, “Those of us who notice the big players in the mom blogging space know that consumer foods make up a huge part of the product reviews and online activity with mom bloggers.”
She points to efforts by Kraft, Unilever, and ConAgra, and to food associations, like the National Mango Board. The trend isn’t new. Several years ago, food industry giants like Nestle, Frito-Lay, Starbucks, and Taco Bell were actively courting mom bloggers, raising ethical questions, and prompting an FTC disclosure requirement.
Sometimes, the practice can backfire in a big way. In late 2010, the Corn Refiners Association took a public beating in the blogosphere after they recruited moms to write on the benefits of high fructose corn syrup in exchange for a $50 gift card. Many felt that the bloggers who participated were lured by the gift card, but didn’t understand the complexity of the issue. As a result, some bloggers were scorched by peers over their participation in the campaign.
Like it or hate it, the trend isn’t going away any time soon. Take, for example, the National Pork Board’s 2012 Strategic Plan and Budget. The association set aside $50,000 to partner with key influential bloggers. A separate $1.4 million budget will also go towards domestic marketing, including “a plan to conduct a Pork Summit for health influencers, food media and bloggers that combines product education and positive pork production messages, including a farm visit.”
Groups like the U.S. Farmers & Ranchers Alliance, whose members include the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association, Dupont, and Monsanto, are specifically targeting moms though Twitter parties with promises to connect them with farmers or ranchers who “can answer their questions.”
Much of this effort is in response to food activists who have been highly successful in getting the word out about some of the less appetizing aspects of the food industry, like the recent outrage over pink slime. But for readers who gather their food information though some of the down-home mom-blogosphere, the trend is concerning. Most bloggers, moms or not, are not trained journalists, or experts in food production, but perhaps that’s the appeal. Make note of this paragraph in the The New York Times story in which McDonald’s executive Rick Wion talks about the importance of engaging bloggers:
“Bloggers, and specifically mom bloggers, talk a lot about McDonald’s,” he says. “They’re customers. They’re going to restaurants.” And even more important, these women have loyal followings. Why not let them behind the curtain, hope they like what they see and let them tell readers about it? “We identified them and said: ‘These are our key customers. These are key influencers for our brand,’ ” Wion says. “We need to make sure we’re working with them.”
How do you feel about brand-sponsored blog posts? Have you been seeing them pop up in your feeds?