How McDonald's finally got green

I never thought I would find a McDonald's advert a source of optimism, but last week it happened.

I was speaking in a debate at the Marketing Society's annual conference, and that is where the ad was shown as an example of how the firm is changing its communications. It depicted children and adults digging soil and planting seeds. The imagery spoke of reconnections with nature, food and the land. It was billed as the most successful ad the company has put out in a decade. Interesting, I thought.

The debate was about sustainability in face of a downturn, and whether green issues have a future now that the economy is falling apart. As you might expect, I argued for a sustainability-led recovery, with economic activity kick-started through large-scale public and private investments in renewable power, energy efficiency and upgrading of the rail network. New products and services that connected with the imperative of sustainable development would add brand value as the world increasingly wakes up the challenges that face us, I said. A green revolution would create jobs, cut carbon emissions and improve energy security, I argued. As have the group of energy, finance and climate experts who recently published A Green New Deal.

The few remaining climate sceptics, many of whom appear to find a last refuge at Comment is free, would have loved to listen to the man putting the other side of the argument: Kelvin MacKenzie, former long-time editor of the Sun. His main point was that in a downturn people don't give a bloody stuff about the environment. Sure it may make some intellectual sense, and it may even be true that we face an ecological catastrophe, but the price of organic chicken being what it is, it was very likely that greenery would be gone in a matter of months (I don't paraphrase). His idea was that it was far better to cut costs now, save money and (contracting himself) to treat the threat of climate change with some scepticism, as there is a risk it may not even happen. He then went on to explain that he was 62 and didn't care anyway.

There was a suggestion that he was speaking for a large majority of people, and that the recent interest in sustainability was, in fact, a middle-class fad that has passed its peak. All very predicable, and I'm sure will make perfect sense to a lot of the deep thinkers who hold those views. But now I get to the interesting bit, because in the audience were more than 300 marketing professionals, including the nice lady from McDonald's. It is their job to pick up on trends, and to offer evidence-based strategic advice to their employers about where customer preferences will be going. Some of them get paid an awful lot of money, and it is their role to get things right, not to express political opinions. It was their collective judgment that I found very interesting.

At the end of the exchange about greenery in the downturn, the chair of the debate, Channel 4's Krishnan Guru-Murthy, asked people to raise their hands if they felt that sustainability would continue to be a major factor shaping customers' relationships with companies during the coming recession. A sea of arms shot up — it seemed nearly everyone agreed that sustainability would indeed continue as a major driver. When asked who felt it would be less important, only one hand out of more than 300 was raised.

It was a non-representative survey, but to me it said a very great deal about the gut reaction of some of the country's top communications professionals. These people pore over data, they look at trends and understand emotions, and their instinct is to see sustainability as very much a part of the mainstream and a continuing factor for business because it is an accepted concern for society — the McDonald's advert for me being one small symbol of how far it has gone.

It was easy to bash McDonald's, and the reason it happened 10 years ago was because societies were forming new values that the company had not seen coming. McDonald's was forced to rethink, catch up, rebrand and get modern. Now it has images of what it knows increasing numbers of people feel at the core of its brand offer — connections to the land and different attitudes toward where food comes from.

That small fact fills me with optimism, because this is a grassroots culture change in action. Of course we can easily dismiss corporate PR as a set of tools to win market share — of course, that's what it is, but that is not the point. The point is that the companies are changing because their customers are changing their views, what they expect and demand — and that is a very important fact to register, especially when the economy is turning.

So I am left wondering where the politicians are right now on all of this. Do they not have communications people working for them anymore? People who can tell them that not only does it make practical sense to go low-carbon and resource-efficient to stimulate recovery, but that it is a proposition that could garner political advantage as well. I think Gordon Brown and David Cameron should get some corporate marketing people around for tea. They might be able to offer some advice on how to connect with where people are increasingly at.

Originally published by The Guardian.