‘The Founder,’ starring Michael Keaton as Ray Kroc, takes us through the early days of McDonald’s. The movie provides incredible insight into the early brand strategy behind the iconic McDonald’s brand. What Director John Lee Hancock reveals about Kroc’s influence on our food system and food culture is a much bigger story to the detriment of health of millions of people and the planet.
The Vision Few Could See
Director John Lee Hancock did a fantastic job portraying Ray Kroc as a humble, hard-working salesman at the beginning of the movie. You wanted to believe in him, just as he was trying to believe in himself. At the age of 54, he was not satisfied, and so continued to look for new opportunities. When he met the McDonald brothers, it was apparent that they had done a lot of the hard work and had developed systems and processes that allowed them to deliver on their brand promise – your order in 30 seconds.
One of the best scenes in the movie for me was watching the McDonald brothers orchestrate their team in a conceptually designed kitchen mocked up in chalk on a tennis court. The scene powerfully demonstrates that the operations determine the delivery of the brand promise. When the kitchen crew stumbled, the product suffered, causing longer delays and breaking the original promise: delivering the food order in 30 seconds.
When Ray Kroc got wind of this – he began to see what few others could see. He began to dream a dream so large that even the McDonalds brothers were unsure of what he was working so hard to accomplish. Kroc saw an opportunity to develop the McDonalds brand nationwide. The golden arches, in Kroc’s vision, would become synonymous with Americana.
This was the first inkling of a brand strategy for McDonald’s. Though the brothers weren’t fully on board – at least not like Kroc.
The Brand Strategy Comes to Life
With Ray Kroc operating in the midwest and the McDonald brothers operating their California location, the company slowly began to grow. Kroc developed a franchise model that would allow the company to scale faster, opening up new restaurants across the midwest. However, just as the McDonalds brothers had warned, the problem isn’t in the franchising, but rather in maintaining the operations, systems, and processes to the high standards that create and deliver on the brand promise.
Kroc quickly found himself among franchise owners selling friend chicken and mashed potatoes, while others let their restaurants and parking lots fill with trash. The brand strategy and franchise model was spinning out of control. And yet, control was the missing ingredient in the brand strategy.
A Reworked Brand Strategy Takes Off
The missing ingredient between Kroc and his franchise owners was a lack of oversight and control. Branding can be boiled down to consistency. Control plays a large part in maintaining a high level of consistency in order to deliver on your brand promise each and every time. Well-known brands such as Apple, Starbucks, Amazon, and Disney all focus on controlling the systems, operations, and processes in order to deliver their brand experience consistently each and every time. McDonald’s was one of the first to scale this model.
What I found most interesting was how Ray Kroc was able to shift his perspective from selling hamburger franchises to owners who would find their own lot to build on to becoming a real estate developer who offered a turn-key business solution to potential franchise owners. The shift in mindset has to do with control.
You are not in the burger business; you are in the real estate business.
– Harry Sonneborn, played by B.J. Novak in ‘The Founder‘
Control, in this case, meant that Kroc and his McDonalds corporation controlled where new restaurants would be built, how they would look, operate, and be maintained. The franchise owner would then pay start-up costs, monthly rent, and a percentage of sales each month.
This system allowed Kroc to maintain oversight and control of every step across the entire brand experience.
The Wider Impact on Our Food System, Influenced by McDonalds
The movie falls to reveal the wider impact that Kroc and McDonalds had on our food system. In fact, no single entity has done more to shape today’s food supply than this company.
According to Sriram Madhusoodanan’s article on Entrepreneur, when McDonalds began, it sourced potatoes from 175 local farms for its fries. Kroc had decided early on to work with a handful of potato suppliers that relied heavily on chemical pesticides and fertilizers. One outcome of this decision is that today, one of McDonald’s primary potato suppliers, J.R. Simplot, is so ubiquitous that it supplies potatoes for much of the fast food industry and is one of the largest private corporations in the country.
With the brand promise of delivering fast food to their customers, McDonalds unparalleled demand for cheap, uniform agricultural products has helped shrink the biodiversity of our crops, driven the consolidation of food corporations, increased the use of toxic pesticides, and fundamentally reshaped our food system.
While McDonalds was staying true to its brand promise, the larger impact of those decisions are now being felt around the world.
GroundWork Leads to Future Decisions
One of the most fascinating parts of the McDonalds story is how the brand and its culture was shaped and influenced by its founder, Ray Kroc. Kroc determined its values, its brand promise to customers, and set out to develop systems and processes to deliver on those principles.
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What’s Your Take?
No matter if you are a fan of McDonalds or not, ‘The Founder’ is an eye-opening biopic into the mindset and brand strategy of a man on a mission to build a legacy for himself. From seeing a vision few others could match to shifting his strategy from hamburgers to real estate, Ray Kroc found opportunities to shape and influence the food system and food culture we now know so well today. From the brand strategy perspective, Kroc exhibited tremendous foresight and was able to build a team around him in order to see his vision come to life.
Have you seen ‘The Founder’? What’s your take? I’d love to hear your thoughts. Leave a comment below or connect with me on Twitter. If you found this article valuable, feel free to share it with your community.
Also published on Medium.