"How do you live with yourself?" is a question Steve Hill has faced a few times.

As a senior director of global brand at McDonald's, he knows he doesn't work for everyone's favourite brand.

It's a little like being tobacco lobbyist Nick Naylor in the movie Thank You For Smoking, and Hill doesn't feign ignorance of the strong opinions people have about McDonald's, saying it's part of the reason he was drawn to the company.

"The one truism of our brand, and one of the reasons I wanted to work for the company, is that people have an opinion about it — whether it's a good opinion, a bad opinion or an indifferent opinion, we're a culturally significant brand," the Chicago-based Hill tells the Herald during a flying visit to New Zealand.


"Sometimes that works against us, but it can also work in our favour."

If it can't be loved by everyone, what McDonald's does want to be is "one of the most democratic brands in the world".

"We welcome everyone, whether they're in their pyjamas or in high spirits after a night out. We don't take sides. We're not political in that sense."

McDonald's senior director of global brand Steve Hill was recently in New Zealand. Photo/Supplied.
McDonald's senior director of global brand Steve Hill was recently in New Zealand. Photo/Supplied.

You aren't likely to see McDonald's follow Nike's example by taking a potentially divisive political stand. Nike has upset some Americans — and delighted others — by using US football player Colin Kaepernick, known for kneeling in protest while the national anthem is played, as the face of an advertising campaign.

Hill counts himself as an admirer of the bravery and strategy underpinning the Nike campaign, but that doesn't mean he'll copy it.

"Sometimes brands can look to jump onto bandwagons that they have no right to jump onto," Hill tells the Weekend Herald.

"What Nike is doing is brilliant, because it's true to what they've been doing for 30 years.

"But for us and our potential to be more political, I don't see that as a space we would enter any time soon."


The use of democracy as a metaphor for McDonald's is fitting, given that the company has faced some of the same challenges as the modern democratic system. Chief among them, fake news.

Cow eyeballs in the burgers, worm meat as a filler and mutant lab animals are just some of the hoaxes that have followed the brand.

Hill notes that despite ongoing efforts, the company's battle against this misinformation is far from won.

"Recently my 10-year-old perpetuated two myths about the brand: one was about pink slime in our chicken McNuggets and the other was about yoga mats in our burgers," he says, chuckling at the irony of a propagandist's offspring not reading from the company script.

The only way to counter the inaccuracy of these anecdotes, says Hill, is to tell the stories behind the brand — its produce sourcing and preparation practices. But that is no longer as easy as pushing out a few radio and TV ads and hoping for the best.

As a business that sprawls across the world, McDonald's isn't always in control of its story or the way it's told. In fact, the best — and sometimes worst — McDonald's stories emerge organically, with the company having virtually no input.

"Simple things can really take off in huge ways," Hill says.

"It might be something as crazy as someone going through a drive-through on a horse, but those sorts of moments are the ones that create the most noise and conversation — perhaps more so than traditional advertising.

"The future of marketing is almost becoming PR in an odd way."

But McDonald's has had to learn to take the good with the bad. This week, for example, the company made headlines as news stories reported that a manager told a staffer not to talk to customers in te reo during Māori Language Week. It wasn't McDonald's policy, but it did few favours for the brand's image in the local market.

Add to this the constant stream of stories about customers behaving badly, and it quickly becomes clear that the McDonald's democracy is sometimes brutish, nasty and downright weird.

At a recent speaking event, a member of the McDonald's team asked the audience to raise their hands if they ate at the fast-food chain from time to time.

Almost no one lifted a hand — odd, given data that shows about 1.5 million Kiwis buy from the company every week.

The embarrassment the audience felt about acknowledging their eating habits wasn't surprising, given that it has become almost fashionable to use McDonald's as the symbol for everything wrong with the fast-food industry. These days, you don't have to look far to find an enemy of the company.

"We're definitely the poster child for our category," says Hill.

That is partly because McDonald's is the biggest player in the market, but it's also because films such as Supersize Me have drawn attention to the dangers of eating too much of the company's product.

Hill says the documentary's impact extended far beyond its 100-minute running time.

"The period after Supersize Me was really interesting for the brand," he says.

"We started changing many of our formulations, reducing salt and sugar. It was really a catalyst for change."

The golden arches have become a symbol of the fast-food industry. Photo/File.
The golden arches have become a symbol of the fast-food industry. Photo/File.

The film and others that followed also coincided with a shift in consumer behaviour, with many people opting for healthier or more gourmet options. American brands like Chipotle gained momentum, often at the expense of McDonald's, and the company had to respond. To extend the democratic notion even further, the (healthy) Greens were on the rise.

McDonald's response included the launch of Create Your Taste, which allowed consumers to make their own burgers via a digital kiosk.

At the time, it seemed a perfect way into the gourmet market. The only problem was that consumers weren't lovin' it.

There were too many choices, customers became frustrated that they couldn't order at the drive-through and it undermined the McDonald's reputation for speed. That left the company with little choice but to pull the plug — but not everything has gone down the drain.

"Create Your Taste wasn't a complete failure. It's still alive in part," says Hill.

One aspect that consumers warmed to was the use of digital kiosks, and McDonald's has now announced plans to install those at more stores across the world.

What the company learnt was that customers weren't necessarily interested in building their own burgers — but they did like having control of how they ordered and received those burgers.

While Create Your Taste didn't go exactly according to plan, Hill says the company isn't done with experimenting yet — particularly in the early-adopting Aussie and Kiwi markets which spawned the All-Day Breakfast and McCafe.

"I see this part of the world on the leading edge of the change we have at the organisation," says Hill.

"The consumer in this market is quite demanding and picks up trends quickly."

Which is to say that McDonald's relevance depends on a crowd which is always willing to change its mind if something else comes along.

That said, whether openly or in disguise at drive-throughs late at night, 1.5 million Kiwis a week are still voting with their wallets and sticking with the Republic of McDonald's.

Now, if only they could sort out that pink slime problem.