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Super-size surveys show consumer landscape is changing

McDonald’s is an iconic brand which has transcended its all-American heritage to become the world’s most renowned fast-food brand leader. Yet to stay at the top, McDonald’s must change some of the same practices that got it there, says a senior company official.

“As the face of Canada truly changes, so does its eating habits,” Jeff Kroll, senior vice-president, supply chain management for McDonald’s Canada told a Cattlemen’s Young Leaders (CYL) seminar hosted by the Alberta Livestock and Meat Agency (ALMA) last month.

Kroll, an ALMA board member, said McDonald’s, like other successful enterprises, must change with its customers.

“The Canadian consumer landscape is changing. Canada’s demographic environment is changing, driven by two things. One is an aging population, and population growth fuelled by immigration.”

Members of those groups are less interested in what propelled McDonald’s to the top — burgers and french fries. Kroll said an aging population is increasingly concerned about health and wants more fruits and vegetables.

While most people still associate beef with burgers, that trend is slowly changing, in part due to immigration. Kroll says two-thirds of Canada’s visible minorities are of Asian descent, and cultural preferences are shaping buying decisions.

“When selecting meats, Asians are more likely to choose pork, poultry and fish and the overall decline in beef consumption suggests that Canada’s changing demographic profile is an influence on the proteins that Canadians are eating,” said Kroll. Also, Canadian tastes are becoming more eclectic, and in the last 10 years, more are experimenting with new spice sensations, especially ginger, garlic, basil and curry.

Taste — and information

With 33,000 restaurants in 119 countries, McDonald’s has a lot at stake, and part of protecting and even growing its market share depends on market intelligence. To that end, McDonald’s conducts regular market research to stay ahead of the curve.

“Canadians are very consistent in what they want,” said Kroll. And what they want, he says, is taste. “But in addition to taste, they want to be educated about the food they are eating. They want to learn about the food, they want to know where it comes from and that the company they are buying from is concerned about societal issues.”

Kroll said three of five consumers say it is very important that the meat used to make their burger is sourced from animals that were raised without the use of steroids. More than half say it’s important that their burger patty is made from meat that is hormone and antibiotic free. Kroll said these concerns have risen considerably in the past two years, especially over antibiotic use. It’s a trend any large retailer is going to be watching closely — if consumers become serious about hormone and antibiotic use, there would be serious ramifications for the livestock industry.

“Managing desires for natural and fresh products needs to be balanced with the ability to offer those options at affordable prices,” said Kroll. Large-volume suppliers like Wal-Mart and McDonald’s would have difficulty even sourcing enough hormone- and antibiotic-free product to meet demand.

Defining “local”

Another new trend is consumer desire for local product.

“Local is an interesting and complex one, because I like to say everything is local to someone, so it’s how you define that local,” Kroll said.

In an effort to satisfy the public’s growing hunger for foods seen as wholesome, gourmet burgers are increasingly adorning drive-thru menu boards across the country. Consumers equate certain brands like Angus, and certain cuts like sirloin as pivotal to a higher-quality sandwich, and specialty cheeses, buns and season ingredients are also prized. This demand for slower, guilt-free, gourmet food is paradoxically at odds with the traditional consumer demand for inexpensive, uniform, high-speed food.

Asked about the fast-food industry’s social responsibility in a time of increasing obesity, the noticeably fit and trim Kroll ultimately passed the buck to the consumer.

“I think it’s all about balance and choice. I have been eating McDonald’s for 31 years — almost every day when I worked in the restaurant,” he said. “For example, just two days ago I had our new McBistro grilled chicken, no sauce because I tailor it to the way that I want it,” he said. “If you want balance and choice, we have everything available to make that happen.”

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