McDonald’s latest Happy Meal iteration is complete, and well ahead of schedule. The company announced today the realization of its global commitments developed with the Alliance for a Healthier Generation in 2013 to better promote fruit, vegetables, low-fat dairy and water in 20 major markets representing about 85% of the system’s sales.
This achievement comes ahead of the target date of 2020.
The initial objectives were to offer alternative sides and beverages as part of the ubiquitous chain’s popular Happy Meal offerings, as well as to provide a side salad, fruit or vegetable as a substitute for French fries in value meals. McDonald’s retained Keybridge, a public policy economic consulting firm, to independently verify progress on the achievement of its commitments.
Julia Braun, McDonald’s head of global nutrition, said markets were driven to hit this goal, and quickly, because of public interest. According to Technomic’s Healthy Eating Consumer Trends Report, for example, 45% of millennials would be very likely to order healthier options at restaurants if they were offered.
“This was not just in working with new items, but more about putting a formality around these commitments, which essentially allowed markets to accelerate the work,” Braun said. “By elevating that work to a global level and having public-facing commitments, it really motivated our markets to get there faster.”
The company and its operators, she adds, recognize the importance of this work.
“There has been buy-in from the top down that this is just the right thing to do,” she said. “Our franchisees were really on board with making changes that were important to kids and families and making sure they were getting what they needed and that they could feel good about visiting. There has also been an investment from leadership to commit to the point of view of children’s health and well being.”
It hasn’t been bad for business, either. Families with children make up a big chunk of McDonald’s regular business and traffic, so offering alternative options is a wise way to retain (or perhaps attract) many of them as consumers become more health conscious, and as those health-conscious consumers become parents for the first time.
Braun said the most exciting part of this commitment has been the shift in ordering behavior. The percentage of Happy Meals with water, milk or juice orders are up 12% globally since 2013—from 36% to 48%. In the U.S., those numbers are a little more significant at a 15% increase. This means more than half of all Happy Meals in the domestic market now include milk, water or juice.
“That is huge. More customers are choosing these (options) than we’ve ever seen. I’m really proud of that, as a dietician and as a mom. It’s the biggest shift I’ve seen since we’ve started this work,” Braun said.
It hasn’t been an easy ride for McDonald’s to get to this point. About a decade ago, as children’s obesity rates continued on a clear upward trajectory, the chain (and the entire fast food industry in general) became a major target of some activist organizations, including the Center for Science in the Public Interest. McDonald’s started working toward the improvement of its signature kids’ offering in 2011, when the chain added apple slices and a smaller French fry portion.
In 2012, McDonald’s complemented its new offerings with a national Happy Meal campaign that included TV ads promoting nutrition and active lifestyles. The company continues its focus on marketing responsibly, ensuring that all Happy Meal ads meet McDonald’s new global nutrition criteria. The chain also leverages its packaging, kiosks and apps to promote its better-for-you options. (In a statement, the company said Ronald McDonald remains an important part of the brand.)
In 2013, when the original commitments were announced, the CSPI called it a “major advancement” for the chain, but added that McDonald’s “march toward healthier meals” has been slow and that there remained a long way to go.
Today, though much work remains in this space, Braun notes that there is a lot of momentum and desire to keep making changes. In the past few years, the global system has added over 40 new fruit, vegetable, water and dairy SKUs (inventory items). Just last week in France, McDonald’s began adding cucumbers in place of French fries. McDonald’s France already offers carrot sticks and grape tomatoes as Happy Meal options. In Sweden, the McFalafal can be ordered as part of a Happy Meal, while Taiwan offers corn cups. This is just a glance at some of the global work that has been done to modernize the Happy Meal.
Such changes will inevitably impact consumer behavior when considering McDonald’s massive scale of more than 36,000 restaurants serving about 69 million people every day. In the U.S., the chain sells about $10 million in Happy Meals a day, according to the data firm Sense360.
Because of such scale, the work within the company and the industry is not done—not even close, especially as restaurant competition intensifies, as consumer demand for better-for-you offerings expands and as the still-growing fast casual segment generates a perceived healthier value proposition.
Last year, McDonald’s added to its 2013 initiative with Healthier Generation, calling the updated plan a “Commitment to Families.” It includes a set of five new global Happy Meal goals to be achieved by 2022:
- Offering more balanced meals
- Simplifying ingredients
- Continued transparency with Happy Meal nutritional information
- Responsible marketing
- Leveraging innovative marketing to help increase purchase of items that contain recommended food groups
“Our 2018 commitment built on our original (2013) set of commitments. We had a lot of learnings by then and made a lot of progress and we wanted to take that to the next level and up the ante,” Braun said. “The biggest difference is our new set of commitments includes a prescribed set of nutritional and ingredient parameters, which is the first time we’ve put that out globally. Our hope is that we continue to push forward and be better.”
Braun stopped short of stating whether or not such commitments provided McDonald’s with a competitive advantage. Its QSR burger competitors offer similar alternatives (e.g. milk and juice) as well, while Burger King even goes so far as to offer a 300-calorie peanut butter and jelly sandwich on the kids’ menu and Wendy’s lists a kids’ chicken wrap on its menu.
For Braun, however, that’s not necessarily what these commitments are about for McDonald’s.
“With our scale, we are a leader in this space and a lot of people watch us closely,” she said. “I want customers to look at us as an ally. I’m going to put my mom hat on here, but I want to be the place where my child is happy and so am I. That’s our north star.”