Story time IV: Ronald, patron saint of ethnography

RonaldCommercial ethnography is sometimes the method of last resort. All other methods, quantitative and qualitative, have been tried and all have failed. 

That’s why, a couple of years ago, I got a call from The Coca-Cola Company (TCCC). A great torrent of Coke flows through McDonald’s every day. So TCCC was particularly concerned by a new finding: that consumers order a smaller size of Coke when passing through the drive-through than when ordering indoors at the counter. Multiply this difference (even if it’s just 3 ounces) by millions of drinks per day over thousands of outlets, and you get the idea.

All the obvious methods had failed. TCCC had collected every kind of quantitative data and subjected it to every statistical manipulation. Focus groups had been held. Consumers panels had been convened and consulted. The experts had been consulted.

All the obvious answers had been exhausted. No, it wasn’t that people were worried about spilling their Coke in the car. No, it wasn’t that they were concerned about bladders filling and perhaps exploding on route. This is was for both McDonald’s and TCCC a WTF moment.

So TCCC asked me if I could solve this problem? I said yes, because I always say yes. But I figured that if all other methods had failed, no one would be inclined to crucify the method (or me) if ethnography did too.

Off I went to Southern California. I found a McDonald’s with the right mix of consumers and a robust drive through line. The manager was a little mystified but entirely helpful. I decided to see if I could interview people in the drive-through. And predictably, this made people in the drive through line a little uncomfortable.

I was wearing a suit and tie, to make myself look more professional. Actually, wearing a suit in a drive-through line really just makes you look Martian. But that’s good too. To magnify the effect, I wore a little blue McDonald’s cap. Now, I looked like a complete asshole. To be fair.

Very shortly, I was feeling like an asshole, too. The longest you can talk to someone who is driving through a drive-through line is about 40 seconds. You have no longer introduced and explained yourself than the driver is ready to move on. You can walk along beside the car as if shuffles forward, but this is tricky because you have to walk backwards, and the lane is narrow.

So most of your interviews last about 22 seconds. It is hot, very hot. It is so hot that I am soaked right through and my camera person, Suz, has discovered that the sun block has run off her forehead into her eyes and she can barely see. At this point, we aren’t getting very much more on camera than we are in the interviews.

I can’t tell you the outcome of the research. That was bought and paid for by TCCC, and what are the chances that I would ever work again if I blabbed (and blogged) my research results. But, at the risk of blowing my own horn, I can tell you this. The idea finally came to me, out there in the broiling sun, and when I gave it to my client over the phone, she gasped. In my experience, this is the best sound a client can make. I have only heard it once.

But let me end on a methodological point. Ethnography must always start with an act of humility. You are talking to the respondent because they know and you don’t. They are the expert and you are the supplicant. You have to communicate this early on, especially if you are talking to someone who might be intimated by you or your appearance. Nothing quite gets this job done like a suit, tie and a blue McDonald’s hat. In these circumstances, I might as well have been dressed up like Ronald McDonald.

But there is a second grounds for humility, one that exists for all researchers. Every time I drive by a McDonald’s, I look to see if they embraced my strategy or adopted any of my recommendations. Five years later, they haven’t done a thing.

57 thoughts on “Story time IV: Ronald, patron saint of ethnography

  1. John

    Its pretty much dead here, but the recent post reminded me of this quandy, and I thought I’d go ahead and post what I think is the answer, just for laughs.

    I think it has to do with the fact that you can get free refills inside. So you get the biggest cup and drink so you can refill on your way out, and therefore get the most for your money.

    When you go through the drive through its a one-time-only affair. There is no promise of a free refill and so you are stuck with whatever size you get. No prmoise of a little something extra after your meal. Therefore you just get whatever the meal comes with.

    Some would say that you would still order the biggest size if what you want is quantity, but thats just the point, you dont want quantity really, you want to know when you walk out of the restaraunt and get in your car that you’ve just gotten a whole bunch of something for nothing. You’re not actually that thirsty, you just want to stick it to the man. If they allowed you to bring in containers to fill up with free soda people would be hauling out soda by the tankfull.

  2. Pete

    When you’re in McDonalds, you can actually see the various cup sizes. You decide which one you’d probably be satisfied with, then you think “well, it’s only an extra 8p” (or 10c or whatever you deal in), play safe and go for the larger. When you’re at the drive-thru, it’s all a bit of an abstraction and you’d rather be a medium person than a large person. That is all. (Maybe).

  3. rwk

    My guess is that it has to do more with the client than the transaction itself. I’m thinking that drive-throughs are favoured by soccer moms – with a van load of kids. (Yes, I’ll have one regular coke with that, and three small)

  4. Anonymous

    1. McDonald’s large size cups are plastic, not paper, with a narrower bottom specifically so they’ll fit in a cupholder. From a strength / non-leak perspective the large cups are actually better than the regular paper cups — and this has only gotten more true over the past few years as they switched to the current materials.

    2. Soda is the largest profit item (highest margin, etc) for a QSR. So they’d do just about anything to increase the per-visit sales of soda, even if it meant spending more on the cup, etc.

    3. In hot climates many drive-ins use foam cups that still fit into cupholders to reduce the sweating problem, so that is not the issue — it’s already covered by standard practice.

    4. One reason may be at the drive in, the driver orders, whereas inside the individuals order. A driver is more likely to be budget sensitive, especially when forced to list the whole order out over the speaker system, than individuals ordering for themselves.

  5. Anonymous

    Remember he said he “drives by and looks to see if McDonald’s has implemented his suggestion” and most of the comments here can not be implemented by McDonalds, but my car manufactures. I would say cup size or differences in the menu would make a difference that could be implemented by McDonalds.

  6. Michael

    I think Susan got it right. When you’re ordering at the drive-thru, you can’t see the cups. Even though the large cup does indeed fit in a cup holder, someone at the drive-thru may not be aware or confident of that, and therefore chooses the safer, smaller cup that they know will fit. This is also something the author can verify by driving by — checking to see if they put cups (or representations of cups) on or near the menu.

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