How McDonald’s Spectacularly Failed with the McLean Deluxe

The public will not buy healthy food from McDonald’s

Lee G. Hornbrook

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Photo by engin akyurt on Unsplash

Even the biggest companies have spectacular marketing fails.

Along the lines of Coca-Cola’s New Coke fiasco, McDonald’s had a marketing failure with their “deluxe” line of foods in the 1990s.

McDonald’s tried to capitalize on consumer’s increasing demands for healthier foods. They created the McLean Deluxe, a healthier burger, which had a “ketchup, mustard, a whole lettuce leaf, pickles, a sliced tomato, and a reduced fat patty, all on a bakery style roll.” The McLean Deluxe was either far ahead of its time or out of touch with consumers. Ultimately, it was both, as the McLean Deluxe, well-intentioned as it might have been, was ridiculed and ignored by customers.

The health food industry can be traced back to the early 1900s, but it wasn’t until the 1960s with the health-conscious hippies that the industry really took roots. The 1970s led to the firm establishment of healthier foods in the larger food landscape. By the 1990s, the health food industry itself was soaring. The obesity epidemic also picked up enormous speed in the 1990s, and companies were scrambling to meet consumer’s increased health consciousness.

Enter the king of fast foods — McDonald’s. McDonald’s introduced the McLean Deluxe in 1991. It had far fewer grams of fat than the Big Mac. To achieve that, McDonald’s went outside for help from food scientists at Auburn University. It’s the only burger not created by McDonald’s own executive chef. To achieve that level of fat-freeness, the McLean Deluxe was filled with “added carrageans, which is a chemical derived from red seaweed.”

The McLean Deluxe was advertised as “91% fat-free,” which is a problem because the “fat of the meat drives the burger’s flavor.” And while the burger-eating public was interested in healthier fare, they were not ready nor willing to give up on taste.

McDonald’s vastly misread the burger-buying public. People then, and now, don’t go to McDonald’s for health food. Consumers will not sacrifice taste for healthier ingredients. Also, there is not a path in the consumer brain that says, “Let me see what healthy fare I can get at McDonald’s.”

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Lee G. Hornbrook

Writer, Writing Coach, Writing Process Expert. I can help you become a better writer. Follow at leehornbrook.substack.com