The world of fast food has long been one of controversy and confusion. Documentaries such as the world-famous "Super Size Me" have been questioning the effects of fast food upon the body, whilst TV programs such as "Man vs. Food" have almost satirized the consumer culture and the huge portions that customers today demand.
Additionally, the recent decision by a number of fast food companies to display the calorific content of their food on the menu has proven to be a shock for the majority of their customers, who were previously in the dark about how many calories a quick snack or a meal on-the-run would cost them. With all this negative publicity around, you'd think that the stock of a company such as McDonald's (MCD) would have taken a turn for the worse.
However, with McDonald's, that is certainly not the case - in fact, quite the opposite has happened. McDonald's stock is now trading at the impressive amount of around $98, and, although this has seen a decrease since this time last month (March 2012), when it was trading at $99, the stock has seen a relatively steady increase over the past year. In April 2011, McDonald's stock was trading at $77, meaning that the stock has seen an increase of over $20 in the past year. This makes McDonald's stock one of the best performing entities on the market, and the corporation is quick to assure us that its recent figures are supporting this trend.
Comparatively, McDonald's competitors are constantly trailing behind. YUM! Brands (YUM) is currently trading at around $71, and has also seen an increase of over $20 since this time last year, although it has not been able to equal McDonald's stock price, let alone surpass it. Domino's Pizza (NYSE:DPZ) at around $36, Burger King is currently trading at around $24, and Wendy's (NYSE:WEN) is currently trading at around $5, meaning that even the largest fast food competitors of McDonald's and YUM! still have quite a way to go. So how have McDonald's managed to maintain such a strong lead over its competitors, despite all the controversy surrounding McDonald's, and fast food in general?
Firstly, McDonald's is a fast food chain that is continually expanding, not only within the United States, but worldwide. With over 33,000 restaurants spread all over the globe, you wouldn't think it possible that McDonald's could continue to expand, but in fact, it recently made headlines in The Financial Times thanks to its final moves to expand and dominate the Russian fast food market. Despite only opening its first restaurant in Russia in 1990, there are now over 300 restaurants in the country, and McDonald's has withstood both political and economic revolutions during its young career in Russia, demonstrating that it can stand the test of time and circumstance.
Additionally, McDonald's seems to attach itself to unlikely yet successful projects and partners within the public eye. Most notably, McDonald's has been chosen as the official restaurant of the 2012 Olympic Games in London. While for many, this was an unusual choice of sponsor and restaurant, the partnership has supported the recreation of McDonald's image as a healthy and nutrition-conscious eating establishment. Heaven knows, it needed to work on its image thanks to the damage done by exposés such as "Super Size Me."
The 2004 documentary caused serious damage to McDonald's reputation as a family-friendly, average fast food restaurant. The star of the film, Morgan Spurlock, ate nothing but McDonald's food for a month in a bid to examine the effects of fast food on the body. The results were shocking, as Spurlock gained over 20 pounds and suffered from lethargy, depression and a reduced sex drive. Despite the changes made by McDonald's in the wake of Spurlock's film, including the claims that McDonald's now uses 100% chicken breast in its chicken products, even recent documentaries, such as the controversial TV documentary aired in Australia, have caused discomfort and uneasiness within the ranks of the fast food superpower, demonstrating that McDonald's is still not infallible.
However, perhaps the difference between McDonald's and its competitors is that McDonald's is constantly making high-profile and high-publicity moves towards transparency and real health-consciousness when it comes to its food. McDonald's was the first fast food company, along with the Starbucks (SBUX) coffee houses, to display calorie content alongside food items on its menu. Recently, fast food outlets such as KFC have followed suit, demonstrating how McDonald's is highly in-tune with what the consumer wants when it comes to nutrition.
Another thing that the consumer (and stockholders and shareholders) want is consistency and security, and it appears that McDonald's is delivering this, too. It has recently been announced that the CEO of McDonald's, Jim Skinner, is about to leave for retirement. This would have sent any other company into a whirlwind of confusion and uncertainty - however, McDonald's dealt with it very well, announcing immediately that a well-known and popular successor had already been chosen to replace Skinner. This meant that there was no uncomfortable state of limbo, and that the future of the company was never jeopardized or left undecided.
Personally, I eat at McDonald's very rarely. This is due to a number of reasons. The menu doesn't particularly appeal to me, my friends and family don't eat at McDonald's often, and I can't genuinely enjoy a meal there without feeling guilty about the substances I'm putting into my body. However, I know that, and statistics show that, my family, friends and I are in the minority: people all over the country, and all over the world, eat McDonald's food on a regular basis. McDonald's is doing everything in its power to assure the consumer that it is a responsible and family friendly restaurant, and its tactics are obviously working. I feel that, should McDonald's choose to focus its marketing on people like me - the average, middle-class, (relatively) health-conscious consumer - it would become unstoppable. And as far as I'm concerned, it's only a matter of time.
Disclosure: I have no positions in any stocks mentioned, and no plans to initiate any positions within the next 72 hours.