26 May 2020 Blog: The inevitable return of fast food Britain – but did it ever really go away?
As lock down restrictions start to ease, we are starting to see many different types of retailers re-open with strict social distancing measures and hygiene standards in place. Fast food outlets and takeaways are no exception – and the excitement is all too much to handle for some.
From a nutritionist’s perspective, it was refreshing to see these types of foods – many of which are available 24/7, often containing high levels of calories, saturated fat, sugar and/or salt but little in the way of nutrients – were no longer available. It seemed like a miracle, a nutritionist’s utopia! I may have, albeit naively, thought a much-needed break from fast food, would mean regular consumers may have seen the light and tapped into their inner (home) chef. Polling data commissioned by the Food Foundation has suggested that this may have been the case, with results suggesting 38% of people are cooking from scratch more[i]. The hysteria that has erupted since the announcement of these reopening’s suggests otherwise.
Is Ronald McDonald from Peterborough?
Last week, we saw the long-awaited return of fast food giant McDonald’s. Never in it’s history has it been forced to close for such a long period – since 23rd March 7pm. 57 days and 12 hours, to be exact, as many of their customers were counting down the days until they could get their hands on their beloved Big Mac once more.
With roughly 1,300 outlets in the UK, just 33 of these reopened as a drive thru only, bar some which are also offering delivery, as part of a phased reopening[ii]. I am pleased to say, McDonald’s has yet to grace my home city with its presence – yet, anyway.
The fast food giant is offering a limited menu as part of their safety measures, meaning less staff are required during service. This is a sensible approach to create a safer working environment, but it is disappointing to see this limited menu is also limited in the way of healthier options – with wraps, veg sticks and salads not making the cut. Instead, customers have 7 burgers to choose from. How is that for variety and balance?
A city otherwise known for its beautiful 12th-13th century Cathedral, as of this week Peterborough has been given the coveted title of ‘McDonald’s capital of the UK’, where 6 out of the 33 stores reopening in the UK are situated. Surely that’s worth a visit, right? Especially for its neighbouring cities, such as Cambridgeshire, who were livid with the announcement no stores would be reopening in their patch. The story went viral which resulted in Peterborough trending on twitter – now that’s some good, and free, publicity.
A video of a horrendously long que at a McDonald’s in Sutton, Chelmsford and other areas of the UK have also been circulating – similar scenes to those at a boxing day sale, rush hour on a busy junction or roadworks clogging up the flow of traffic[iii]. It is clear that the public have missed McDonald’s during the Covid-19 lockdown.
‘We missed you too’
Even though some of our favourite fast food companies were closed, they did not let us forget about them. Through clever and engaging social media content, companies were able to continue to interact with their customers despite all operations coming to a halt. Take KFC for example. The #RateMyKFC social media campaign (see below), encouraged people to make their own versions of its chicken wings dish and post them on social for the brand to critique. According to Marketing Week, the campaign produced hundreds of tweets and an engagement rate of 101% among its followers over the past six weeks[iv]. People were also really missing their KFC.
And these submissions turned out to come in very handy for the launch of their ‘we’re back’ advertising campaign, which features a compilation of the #RateMyKFC campaign.
Quoted in Marketing Week[v], marketing director Jack Hinchcliffe said: “This shows the length our fans have gone to recreate KFC at home, some better than others, but the end result is we are saluting their efforts. We wanted to let our fans know we’re back and they can put the fryers down and leave it to us.”
We can all rest easy tonight, then.
‘We’re doing our bit’
Some takeaways were however still operating throughout the lockdown, such as Dominoes and Papa Johns, as well as a number of local independent outlets and the likes of Just Eat, Deliveroo and UberEats acting as the middleman between outlet and consumer. Some of the communications being circulated through advertising campaigns all have a consistent theme – that they are doing their bit in the fight against Covid-19 by providing food (much of which is high in fat, sugar/salt), alongside highlighting the role of NHS workers, teachers, postmen, binmen, supermarket workers etc – it almost seems they are trying to position themselves under the ‘key worker’ definition, of whom are widely regarded as heroes during the pandemic. Our friends at the Obesity Health Alliance highlight this very well in their recent blog, which provides concrete examples of how food companies are keeping unhealthy food in the spotlight during the lockdown – including positioning themselves as ‘heroes’.
Serving food to the community during the lockdown is so important – but surely only those delivering food that is healthy, and good for us, should get this recognition?
Marketing works – who knew?
I suppose the point I am trying to make is that I am not surprised the public are so excited about the return of their favourite fast food outlet – and I certainly don’t blame them. The marketing strategies both before, during and after the lockdown are clever, emotive and engaging content (not to mention huge marketing budgets!), which fosters positive brand associations and loyalty with their customer base. Somehow, even in spite of their doors being closed, they are able to keep their brand, and products, in the mind of customers. That takes some going and we’ve got to hand it to their marketing team.
But this also begs the question whether we can trust food companies to market their products responsibly. We know from past and present experience that they simply cannot be left to their own devices, and further restrictions are needed. The Government knows this, having consulted on introducing further restrictions on TV and online platforms in 2019, but progress on getting this over the line had stalled long before the Covid-19 pandemic arrived. However, the news of Boris Johnson’s apparent u-turn on Government policy to reduce the prevalence obesity (read our full response here), may just be what is needed to kick start the UK’s childhood obesity strategy once more.