Form Follows Assumption?

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McDonald’s is going to change its logo in Germany, casting its iconographic golden arches against a green background to envoke its respect for the environment. I can’t decide if the idea is irrelevant or insane. Or both.

Central to the decision would be the premise that fast-food customers make eating decisions based on corporate environmental policies. If comparisons between hamburgers or fries net out in a tie, McDonald’s must believe that it’ll win because it’s doing good things for the planet.

On that point, the company has substantive actions that it can promote:

  • It’s testing a prototype store that uses 25% less energy 
  • Another store is testing cutting-edge energy use management with U.S. government certification programs like LEED 
  • It’s buying solar-powered air conditioners 
  • It touts the expected sustainable food chain and environmental steering committees on its corporate web site

Yet all of this information leaves me asking the same question again:

Who cares?

I mean, I care that companies institute real good-for-business environmental and social policies, as I believe doing right by the planet and by people shouldn’t be the purview of marketing or some other corporate social responsibility nonsense. Wal-Mart is writing the book on this strategy (followed by other big names, like Dow) and, in doing so, is illustrating that doing "green" is probably going to resemble doing "IT"…and offer no more competitive differentiation on the marketing front than, say, touting your computer servers over those of your competition, or declaring that your brand’s sourcing code is more robust.

Even if McDonald’s assumes that it can buck this trend and that hungry customers care about this stuff, claiming a position on "green" is a slippery slope:

  • What about how its beef is slaughtered and handled, or what raising zillions of cows does to communities and their local environments?
  • What about all the waste produced at retail outlets (sure, no-ink bags are recyclable, but does it happen consistently)?
  • How much fuel is used to drive to McDonald’s stores, both by customers and employees, etc.? 

There is an endless list of ways the company impacts the planet, and few of them are obviously or inherently good; like the rest of reality, the truth is nuanced and complicated.

Contemplating such a list gets stupid pretty fast, though at least irrelevantly so compared to the "healthy" nonsense the brand tries to claim with its "nutrition information" (i.e. eating a burger is part of a balanced diet that includes extra good stuff to compensate for what we serve you) and disingenuous sponsorship of the Olympics (yeah, gymnasts are regular patrons). The one area in which "green" might matter most should be measured in lettuce, only you need a microscope to find that evidence.

But like I said, who cares?

Environmentalism and health claims seem so far afield from selling great hamburgers in great restaurants. McDonald’s has absolutely nothing to hide or be embarrassed about: it sells tasty, cheap fast food in dependably clean and convenient locations. Trying to make the case that it is improving the health of its customers or the planet isn’t just a reach but risks being utterly unconnected to the drivers of consumption.

Could it make sense for individual restaurants to commit a percentage of every purchase to some local community project? Perhaps. How about letting customers accrue points for healthy lifestyles and rewarding them with celebratory McDonald’s meals? Maybe. I’m still not convinced that such programs would actually influence purchase choices, but there are lots of ways to make such themes meaningful and relevant to behavior…and provide some utility to customers.

But who cares about a green logo? It stands for a faulty assumption, and risks reducing a well-known brand icon into an example of branding nonsense.

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