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Can McDonald’s McPlant supplant the Big Mac?

March 2022

McDonald’s is home to some of the world’s most iconic products: the Big Mac, Quarter Pounder, and McChicken — amongst many others. In fact, so famous and internationally recognized is the Big Mac that its price is often used as a measuring stick for global purchasing power. While the fast-food giant’s menu has traditionally been geared toward meat-eaters, as consumer preferences evolve, a global giant like McDonald’s is never one to get left behind.

While recent years has seen a renewed focus on healthier alternatives, the launch of the McPlant marks a more significant step-change by the brand — attempting to target the growing number of people looking to reduce (or entirely eliminate) meat from their diet. Developed in partnership with Beyond Meat, the burger uses a plant-based patty, vegan cheese, and vegan sauce.

McDonald’s, however, was beaten to the punch by Burger King, who released the “Impossible Whopper” a number of years ago (albeit consumer take-up has been slow). Would consumers see the McPlant as a good fit with the United States’ biggest beef buyer? Would they connect with the brand’s more purpose-driven practices and efforts to reduce its environmental footprint?

We used our 3 C’s methodology to predict the McPlant’s in-market potential:

  • Captivate: Does it stand out and grab attention?
  • Connect: Does it instantly recall the brand?
  • Compel: Does it motivate behavioral change?

Captivate

People found the concept intriguing, enticed by the eco-friendly credentials of a plant-based meat alternative. Most were favorable to the product’s imagined taste and health credentials, trusting McDonald’s to not underdeliver when it comes to flavor. This was despite the concept (and “McPlant” name) not being considered overly original.

However, some were skeptical, unconvinced that it’d live up to the high bar typically set by McDonald’s — with the inclusion of vegan cheese in particular proving more divisive than the patty itself. Perhaps a reflection of both greater familiarity and acceptance of meat-alternatives compared to cheese-alternatives — and higher proportion of ‘flexitarians’/meat reducers than outright vegans.

McDonald's McPlant Vegan Burger - Innovation Testing - Captivate

 

Connect

The presentation of the burger was highly evocative of McDonald’s, replicating the same visual layering which features in the marketing of many of McDonald’s most famous burgers.

While this helped build familiarity, the meat-free proposition wasn’t considered a natural fit with the brand by everyone — representing a departure from the fast-food retailer’s typical wheelhouse. Few people actively focused on the collaboration with Beyond Meat, reflecting the partnering brand’s expertise being overshadowed by the product sitting under the ‘Mc-’ prefix.

McDonald's McPlant Vegan Burger - Innovation Testing - Connect

 

Compel

The majority of plant-based food non-rejectors would consider the McPlant as an incremental or replacement purchase to their regular McDonald’s repertoire — reflecting the McPlant’s potential to draw lapsed users back to stores, to fulfil a wider range of consumption occasions, and generally provide customers with greater variety. 

While other fast-food chains may already offer plant-based meat alternatives, the McPlant was still considered innovative and forward-thinking — offering a twist on what’s currently available. Not only did the conscientious consumption alternative ladder-up to favorable thoughts and feelings, but it also positioned the retailer as having ‘something for everyone’.

McDonald's McPlant Burger - Innovation Product Testing - Compel

 

What are the learnings for marketers?

McDonald’s long-term success has come from the brand’s relentless focus on its core remit. It’s unsurprising then that when the retailer’s new product innovation has failed, it’s typically been when they’ve tried to stretch too far outside this —including Pizza, McSpaghetti, and McSalad Shakers.

In our experience, the most successful new product innovation combines plenty of familiar with just a little bit new. For all intents and purposes, the McPlant looks and feels as you’d expect of any other McDonald’s meat-based burger. And this is where Beyond Meat, and other competitors in this space, have had much success — depicting plant-based meat alternatives being consumed in familiar ways.

This means that while the McPlant certainly isn’t for everyone, it does give lapsed users a reason to re-consider the Golden Arches, while also being able to meet a growing number of meat-free consumption occasions. More broadly, it reflects positively on the brand, reinforcing that it’s a modern, progressive, and innovative company — which in-turn makes people feel just a little bit closer to it.

Importantly, and unlike previous failed experiments, it’s synergistic with the McDonald’s brand — not just in its name and presentation, but also in efforts to closely mimic the composition of a regular burger (using vegan substitutes). Combined with the implicit trust consumers have that McDonald’s wouldn’t underdeliver on taste, the McPlant provides a glimpse into what McDonald’s menu of the future might look like.

McDonald's McPlant Burger - Innovation Testing - Cubery Rating

This is a self-funded case study using our Innovation Testing solution.

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