McDonald’s is addressing a new relevance problem among the key 18 to 32 year old demographic that wants freshness in their fast food fare. Its “solution” is the McWrap, a freshly prepared sandwich wrap. The tortilla-based wraps contain sliced tomatoes, spring greens, shredded lettuce and even cucumbers, a first at McDonald’s, together with chicken, cheese and sauce. The wraps are prepared to order and the vegetables are indeed fresh.

McDonald’s has had some success addressing other relevance issues in the past, though it took years to get it right. The unhealthy stigma was somewhat softened when it developed, after a lot of trial and error, a set of salad entrees plus some fruit and yogurt items especially for kids. The competition from Starbucks was neutralized with McCafé. Will McWraps be the answer to the “fresh” challenge?

The task for McDonald’s is formidable, not only because getting a menu item right is tricky but also because it will be fighting the absence of several perceptual cues of freshness. It is one thing to deliver freshness, but another to signal with credibility that you have done so. Consider freshness cues that are owned by some of McDonald’s target competitors such as Subway (McWraps is being called the “Subway buster”), Chipotle (which was ironically owned by McDonald’s until 2004), and specialty hamburger joints like Five Guys.

Seeing the food being prepared

One freshness cue is being exposed to the preparation of the food. You know it’s fresh because you get to see the “source,” namely bins containing vegetables as it is with Subway and Chipotle. The open kitchen of Five Guys and others provide a similar feel. There is just a “freshness feeling” about the process and layout. McDonald’s also allows some customer choice, but the preparation is behind the scenes, which does not change the substance but does affect perceptions.

Not frozen and pre-formed

Many of McDonald’s products come pre-formed and are frozen. Substantively that should mean high quality in addition to convenient, fast and high value offerings. But having much of the menu based on frozen ingredients provides a negative signal when compared to Five Guys that prides itself on hand formed, fresh patties – never frozen. Subway and Chipotle do not have the burden of a perception of using frozen ingredients. So the McWrap being fresh rather than frozen represents an exception rather than the norm at McDonald’s. The rest of the operation, rather than supporting a freshness message, represents an inconsistency.

Aroma

A third freshness cue, also indirect, is the aroma of freshly made bread in the case of Subway and the smells of the cooking at Five Guys. There is a feeling of freshness that comes with the sights and smells of cooking that is not there to reinforce the McWraps message.

A “Food with Integrity” philosophy

Chipotle has the mantra, “Food with Integrity.” And they market how they have the best ingredients that are obtained with sensitivity to farmers, animals and the environment. There are no synthetic hormones, for example, in Chipotle offerings. Five Guys displays in their stores which (usually local or semi-local) farms their potatoes come from and make it clear that food sourcing is a priority. Such brand values reinforce the freshness perceptions.

A higher purpose connected to freshness

Subway has a host of programs, such as the Jared obesity effort (Jared Fogle, who lost 245 pounds eating a Subway diet has been a symbol of healthy menu choices for over a decade) and their involvement in the We Can! Program to create better nutrition and health among kids. Chipotle has a visible concern with environmental and sustainability issues. Such higher-order purposes are also consistent with the freshness position.

McDonald’s might get freshness right with the McWrap or with a future item. But it should recognize what freshness means to customers and what signals are relevant. Substance in the form of a single product won’t be enough.

Without supporting freshness cues, they have an uphill battle.

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