Interviewed by Seth Kahan

Shelley is a Chicago-based branding expert. She has led major initiatives for McDonald’s, Frito-Lay, Pepsi-Cola, and Chevron Oil, among others. She launched Airlift Ideas, Inc. to help companies create strong identities for new or existing brands. Previously, as an executive at McDonald’s Corporation, she directed major efforts in new business development, brand leadership and issues management. She led the global strategy on the Balanced Lifestyles issue, bringing over $500 million in new business and repositioning the world-famous brand. This led to the introduction of new menu items globally, alliances with advocates in the government, leading scientists, and expert doctors around the world.

I was lucky enough to sit next to her at the recent Smithsonian conference on Organizational Storytelling, and she had a great story to tell!

Seth: What were the issues for McDonald’s as it related to the obesity issue at the time?

Shelley: Media coverage often drives consumer awareness of an issue. In 2001, there were few, if any stories on obesity. In 2002 articles began to surface in Europe. The reports indicated the world was getting fatter with contributing factors targeting the food industry: salty snacks, soda drinks, and fast food in particular. Additionally, headlines with mortality facts focused on children, indicating they were not going to live as long as their parents because of obesity-related diseases. We monitored the issue closely and realized as a socially responsible company we needed to play a role providing solutions.

Seth: So, what did you do?

Shelley: The CEO at the time, Jim Cantalupo, formed a global cross-functional team. Our first action was to better understand the issue by gathering data. We did a search for answers to the questions, “What is going on in the world of obesity? What is our role?” Our team represented every aspect of our business from menu, legal, government relations, marketing, communications, operations and more. We met with thought leaders to understand the drivers of the debate. Early on we learned that food is only one contributing factor. Energy imbalance is a bigger part of the equation. You have to know how many calories go in via food, and how many calories are expended via physical activity. We also learned from Dr. Paul Gatley at Leeds University that a leading cause of obesity among children was lack of confidence. Energy imbalance, between the food you eat and the energy you expend is behavioral. It’s actually not helpful to consumers to focus on the food alone.

When you look at the culture in America, what you see is that calorie intake is about the same, yet inactivity is way up due to lifestyle. Kids are spending much more time being inactive. They come home from school and they don’t have the free play that we had as kids, because neighborhoods aren’t considered safe. Instead, they’re on the Internet, playing video games and potentially snacking waiting for their parents to get home. We were shocked when we learned in 2003 that Illinois was the only state in the US that still had gym class. Kids today are leading sedentary lives. It’s not that their calorie intake went up. Their energy expenditure is dramatically dropping.

Seth: And how did McDonald’s respond to this?

Shelley: My role was to lead the team finding the right solutions. This included liasing with critical partners outside the organization. Often times I felt like a diplomat, or Madeline Albright, as I represented our voice to advocates. Our team identified a three-part strategy: (1) Offer new menu choices. (2) Promote physical activity among children and families. (3) Inform and educate people to democratize smart eating. This last point was my emphasis. We knew we couldn’t take on all the responsibility, but we also knew we were in a position to make a real contribution on spreading the facts and making it fun.

On a practical level, we needed to make the strategy come alive. To offer new menu choices, our menu department led an effort to explore what types of new products our consumer would enjoy. It’s not simple. Consumers say one thing and do another when it comes to food. We had to spend time learning more about food tastes and what choices customers would buy. If consumers would eat carrot sticks and water, we’d sell them. But, guess what? People only eat food they consider tasty.

Our supply chain, innovating with the agriculture industry, helped us launch salads for moms. McDonald’s serves 50 million consumers a day in over 120 countries, so this effort took over two years as we needed billions of tomatoes and hundreds of hectares of lettuce. We teamed with Paul Newman to serve an all-natural dressing. With our Apples for Kids program McDonalds became the world’s largest sellers of apples.

Second, to promote physical activity among children and families, we developed more ways to leverage our global sports sponsorships including Olympics, NBA and others. Did you know Ronald McDonald is the second most-recognized character in the world (Santa Clause is first)? We knew the importance of this and its impact on children. Ronald began to get kids moving through the “Eat Smart, Be Active” program. Ronald got new costumes and a new story to help kids understand the power of moving and being active. For adults we launched the first ever step-o-meter event for moms. When they purchased a premium salad they received a free step-o-meter to track their miles. We literally gave away millions of step-o-meters!!

Our third strategy was education and information. We began by including information about well-being in all our literature. Our website offered nutrition information in a user friendly way called Bag A McMeal. Consumers could drag menu items into the bag and get a tally of calories and nutrition information, fast and easy. We also formed a global advisory council of top scientists and doctors from all continents. Our council met twice a year to review our ideas and to help us stay current on the latest findings about overweight adults and kids. This group encouraged us, for example, to explore milk consumption. As a result, the USA menu team met with dairy producers. They reinvented the cardboard milk carton, turning it into a fun shaped plastic container. They created new graphics with Ronald McDonald and offered milk in white and chocolate flavors. The US company increased milk consumption by 100%. It worked.

Seth: So the effort was successful?

Shelley: Change efforts in a large, global company take time. The art of story telling to internal stakeholders is just as important as the story we tell our consumers – stories that benefit customers, their needs, lifestyles and pocketbooks. We chose to play a major role in finding solutions. To do that, we deeply understood our business model, and how this effort would impact it. Finally, we were persistent about progress and realistic about how long it takes to change. My hope is that our efforts contribute to a new mindfulness about well-being… a mindfulness that every consumer will bring to the counter.

Shelley Rosen on the web:

Office: 312.492.7772
Mobile: 312.282.1901