McDonald’s can’t always be at the “cutting edge” of innovation, technology and food trends, according to the company’s UK CEO Paul Pomroy.

Speaking at the Festival of Marketing today (6 October), he explained that although it is vital “you don’t stand still” as such a large business, the company also needs to find a balance between offering new products and services while maintaining a consistent experience.

“To move forward as a brand with 4 million customers you can’t stand still. [But] we can’t be at the cutting edge of all of the innovation, all of the technology and the food trends,” he said.

“When you are serving 4 million people a day you have to get more things right than you get wrong. But you’ve also got to take risks and part of the risk-taking is sharing innovation; getting that innovation into the brand is important.”

Covid-19’s impact on business

Coronavirus has been a learning curve for the brand, with Pomroy noting that it “taught us a lot about ourselves and I learnt [about myself] as a leader.”

He describes the pandemic and subsequent lockdowns as “quite refreshing” for the business after more than 50 consecutive quarters of growth in the UK.

“It’s given us a new agility and emphasis to come back where we were before. Everyone says to use a crisis to your advantage and we certainly are at the moment,” he said.

Key to this was communication. As McDonald’s was forced to close its restaurants in the UK, Pomroy and his leadership team rang up franchisees, suppliers and agency partners to inform them of the impact. That decision was a combination of his personal leadership style and the culture at McDonald’s.

“Growing up, my mum taught me to treat other people how you want to be treated and part of that is communication. That doesn’t always mean you’re going to deliver great news. If you’re an agency partner or supplier, I asked ‘when do you want to hear and who do you want to hear from?’.”

He added: “I do believe if you share the challenges the leadership face you get a lot more back from the suppliers. Collaborating has been a key part of my career. I haven’t got all the ideas or the solutions but there are a lot of people outside the brand who want to help us.”

Speaking about how McDonald’s worked through lockdown, Pomroy noted that “we all thought closing would be the hardest decision but opening was the harder part”. The chain relies on fresh food from suppliers and Pomroy admitted he underestimated the logistical challenge of reopening.

We all thought closing would be the hardest decision but opening was the harder part.

Paul Pomroy, McDonald’s

“It took us about eight weeks and we should have started earlier – even before we shut. Hindsight is a wonderful thing,” he said.

Marketing has been more crucial than ever in this time of crisis in communicating both McDonald’s brand values but also important information about openings.

“As we went into lockdown one of one our big concerns was, ‘will our customers forget us?’,” he said.

Queues as restaurants reopened showed this wasn’t the case but Pomroy said the role of marketing needs to be adapted as the business enters a period of recovery.

He said: “How do we get the confidence now to look to the future?

“We’ve been doing four-week chunks and now we need the confidence to look six-to-nine months in advance. That means leadership from me to give the confidence to the team that we will make mistakes and we will waste some money because no-one knows if there will be a local lockdown,” he said.

Improving diversity

Pomroy also acknowledged that McDonald’s UK is “not good enough” when it comes to ethnic diversity at a senior level.

He explained: “Our ethnicity diversity at a macro level looks very good but if you look at senior leadership it is not good enough. At a board level, we don’t have any ethnic diversity. That is a failing of mine. I do admit that openly I haven’t made the progress I want. So how do we make the same progress on ethnicity as we do on gender,” he questioned.

McDonald’s HR team is building a talent pipeline and recruiting into the business a more diverse range of people as a result of this, but Pomroy noted it will take a mix of solutions to improve representation.

He explained: “Speaking with black friends, it’s about showcasing role models. How do we get the right role models from around the brand within the brand so people can see progress is there for them.”

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