This week I have seen several commercials about McDonald's new Premium Salads. According to McDonald's website, “The campaign's new commercials were designed to introduce McDonald's three new versions of wholesome, high-quality salad entrée options and celebrate the multi-faceted lives of women today.”

An interesting tack, to be sure. When I want a salad, McDonald's does not jump to mind. And it seems to be playing follow the leader; didn't fast-food chain Wendy's--among many others--come out with salads in the past year or so?

So why salads? Why is McDonald's, known worldwide for quality fast-food and an icon of Americana--the hamburger and fries--ignoring their roots in favor of pushing salad?

Jim Cantalupo, the Chairman and CEO, has stated, “The world has changed. Our customers have changed. We have to change, too. Growth comes from being better, not just expanding...We also are committed to becoming more relevant to the lives of today's consumers.”

Okay, valid points. But change is different than trying to be all things to all people, and in trying to subvert their bastion of success--the hamburger and fries--they may be making a crucial brand mistake.

On the company website it says that, “President and Chief Operating Officer Charlie Bell discussed McDonald's four business objectives: attracting more customers, getting existing customers to visit more often, building brand loyalty and increasing productivity to increase margins and profitability.”

But this is out of order: brand loyalty should be first, and it is only natural to be so. If you have brand loyal customers, then you retain and increase share of existing customers, while attracting new ones. It is a simple case of making sure the cart is behind the horse, not the other way around!

All this brings me to the point of this article: when in difficult times brands should not try and reinvent themselves anew, but rather reach back into their brand heritage to find a basis for stabilization and growth.

It seems to me McDonald's is a perfect example of a company that is not doing this. Neglecting a brand's history can be an expensive error. Their brand heritage is what made McDonald's into what they are today. They should be using their history to help craft their brand's future. The heritage of a brand has a huge impact on how consumers view a brand in the here and now, and their emotional connections with a brand.

Reading other snippets of reports and press releases on the McDonald's corporate site brings to bear one common thread, at least from my perspective: they are focused on pushing more products, increasing sales, and meeting revenue goals, almost to the detriment of the brand. They are so focused on the downtrend numbers that they are ignoring their most valuable asset, the tradition and heritage of McDonald's.

Sure, they use all the right buzzwords, and talk about increasing customer satisfaction, but you get the feeling they are reaching around trying to find the right answer, rather than following a well-developed and instituted plan. The panic is creeping in…

The power of a brand is conveyed through several keys: its history, its accessibility, its consistency of message and actions, and its familiarity with the consumer. In my mass of notes I keep, I wrote down the following quote, but of course didn't cite where it was from. “Consumers admire a brand which feels as if it knows where it is going, and is proud of the leadership standards which it has displayed in the past.”

Brands have associations that can run deeper than one generation, or one segment in time. I remember being taken to McDonald's when little--it was a great treat, an adventure, and as sappy as it sounds, in my memory it was a heartwarming event. We would go when I got an “A” on my report card, won a softball game, or as a treat from grandma. And my parents have similar memories.

McDonald's has the ability as a brand to transcend generations and tap into nostalgia and the trust it has garnered across the years. Once again, it is the emotional that drives many brand relationships. It is this heritage and the evocative memories for many that they need to tap into. For superbrands, such as McDonald's, much of their sway in the marketplace comes from being recognized literally as part of the fabric of people's lives.

Salads are fine, just great, I am a big fan of them myself. And I am not saying McDonald's shouldn't try to have healthier offerings, or expand their menu.

But they need to keep their brand heritage firmly in the forefront of all communications, not stuffed in a closet like some embarrassing family secret. Consistency is key in brand success.

Changes to a brand need to be done in a way that convey reasons that seem to make sense and be emotionally caring, not fiscally caring. I get the feeling, as a consumer, that McDonald's is moving more into salads more out of concern for their bottom line and less out of concern for my waistline!

So, as a Southern friend of mine used to be fond of saying, “Dance with the one that brought you.”

McDonald's would be smart to heed that advice! You want fries with that?

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Kristine Kirby Webster is Principal of The Canterbury Group, a direct-marketing consultancy specializing in branding and relationship marketing. She is also an Adjunct Professor of Direct Marketing at Mercy College in NY. She can be reached at