3 ways McDonalds use consumer insights to super-charge their innovation process

Kelsey Sullivan

Innovation is vital to the success of any business. But producing successful innovations is certainly not easy.

Everyone in your organization has an opinion about what will be successful in the market, but they’re too close to your business to know for sure. That’s why you need to bring consumers into your innovation process. They will help your teams not only come up with the right ideas, but also pick the ones with the most potential and shape them into products that sell

We often see companies where insights aren’t used this way. Rather, consumer insights are used to give “scores” to pass or fail an idea. If an idea passes, it can move to the next stage. If it fails, it has to go back to the drawing board.

If that’s where you’re starting from, it can seem impossible to get to a culture of true consumer-centricity — where your business views insights as a critical component of producing better innovation.

But Matt Cahill, Senior Director, Consumer Insights Activation at McDonald’s, has been there.

He recently joined us on an episode of the Inside Insights podcast, where he shared the three key ways consumer insights are used today in his company’s innovation process. View them as steps you can take to improve your own innovation research process. 

🎙️ This is how you innovate

Listen to Matt's full podcast episode where he shares how rapid prototyping helped the company come from way behind to launch a winner in the chicken sandwich wars and reveals his three rules for driving innovation.

1. Mine what you know to get a head start

The first step Matt shares is to mine what you know. 

This means looking back at the historical data you have, including past experiences, successes, and failures, and learning from them.

I think in our innovation system, the first thing we realized was, because we're in a lot of the same places, the easiest way for us to get better is to learn from what we've done historically... learn from where you've been and force that step. If you don't force that step, it won't get done. It's easy to skip because everybody wants to have the new greatest idea ever and you don't want to acknowledge that someone has probably had a similar idea before.

Matt Cahill, Sr. Director, Consumer Insights Activation, McDonald's

Matt shares that it’s important to force this step, because some people would prefer to avoid it. They want to come up with a brand new idea and worry that it could be seen as less of their own idea if it’s informed by the past. But Matt has pushed for it at McDonald’s as a way to get a head start.

I always call that getting a headstart. Why wouldn't you want a headstart with all this knowledge that we had before? It's just going to make your outcome better.

Matt Cahill, Sr. Director, Consumer Insights Activation, McDonald's

By learning from what you've done in the past, you'll be able to make smarter, faster decisions and give yourself a leg up when it comes to creating new ideas. And at the end of the day, if the product is a success no one will care where the insight came from — they’ll just care about the outcome!

2. Get smarter, faster, to prioritize your ideas

The second step Matt shares is to get smarter, faster

This means figuring out which ideas have potential before any time is wasted by  using early concept testing tools to get early feedback from consumers. 

By doing this, you'll be able to prioritize which ideas to focus on and which to discard, giving your team more time to focus on the ideas that matter. This is the time to consider specific consumer segments, such as ethnicity or age, to ensure you're creating products that resonate with your target audience.

Matt mentions that this process ultimately serves to remove some of the stress from the process moving forward. Once they know that the underlying idea is good, they don’t need to achieve “scores” moving forward. They can just focus on turning a good idea into a successful menu item.

Now you've got prior knowledge, early feedback on a specific idea and the consumer target in mind. Once we had that, it allowed us to take what would largely be seen as traditional concept testing and say it's not about gating or un-gating anymore. We know the idea is good. Let's make that all about prioritization, which was really effective to say the stress is out of it now because now I don't have to worry about what score did I get, did I meet the hurdle, do I get to advance? It was like, no, we can make this thing really effective. The more we learn, the better it will be.

Matt Cahill, Sr. Director, Consumer Insights Activation, McDonald's

By getting smarter faster, you can avoid wasting time and resources on ideas that are unlikely to succeed, and focus on those that have the best chances of delivering value and impact.

3. Optimize your idea to be a winner

Now that you’ve found the ideas with the most potential, you can focus on shaping those ideas into something that sells. That means working through all the decisions that shape the go-to-market plan, as early as possible.  

Learn from what you're doing, get that early learning early on so we know we're in the right spots, and then rewire that traditional development process to be more about optimization. What can we learn and how do we enable our go-to-market team to really be set up for success as opposed to just previously they'd get a one-page scorecard and be like, yep, this is a good idea, you figure out the rest…There was a lot of rework when we got into actually bringing the thing to market. Making that transition a lot more effective and seamless was the last piece of how it works.

Matt Cahill, Sr. Director, Consumer Insights Activation, McDonald's

You should make sure the plan you put together is informed by research and insights so optimizing concepts for success is ingrained in your process. This will include considering what decisions will need to be made as you bring your product to market and designing a market test or launch plan that takes these decisions into account. 

For example, how will your product or service be positioned? How will it be priced? Marketed? And what about how it will be distributed? 

By doing so, you can reduce the risks and uncertainties associated with launching a new product or service, and increase the chances of success through each iteration.

Wrapping up

By following these three steps Matt shared, you can begin to create a culture of consumer-centric innovation within your organization. 

So make sure you take the time to learn from the past, get smarter faster, and think early about optimizing your go-to-market plan. By doing this, you’ll be able to create products that resonate with your target audience and give your business a competitive edge. 

All in all, take the time to invest in innovation research, and the rewards will be well worth it.

Iterative innovation research with McDonald's

Learn more about how Zappi has helped McDonald's create winning innovations.

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