Tracking McDonald's Price Increase Backlash with Social Data

Check out the dashboard we used to analyze this insight in Infegy Starscape. Dashboard available here!

Henry Chapman, Research and Insights Analyst

Tracking a negative McStory

We're big fast-food fans at Infegy. One of the best parts about fast food is the search for the best value. The fast food industry in the United States is fiercely competitive, with dozens of large restaurant chains jockeying for a competitive advantage.

Over the last three years since the pandemic, we've noticed sharp increases in the cost of menu items, with McDonald's being the most visible example of rising prices. We weren't alone. Pulled out in Figure 1 is a sample of the numerous news of anecdotal reports of unhappy customers complaining that the value of fast food, particularly McDonald's, was being inflated away with ever-increasing menu prices.

Image 1 - News Stories
Figure 1: Sampled news articles around McDonald’s price increases (Late-2023 through Early 2024).

McDonald's response

This online criticism from the mainstream media got so heated that McDonald's released a one-pager at the end of May 2024, refuting much of the online reporting. Sometimes, organizations worry that their response will add to the crisis itself. If an organization is at the point where they have to respond, it means that brand strategists within the company have noticed the criticism. McDonald's has been even more public about a response, pushing against it in their fourth-quarter earnings call.

Image 2 - One Pager
Figure 2: Screenshot of defensive one-pager put out by McDonald's (May 2024).

Detecting anomalous Reddit post volume

To do a quick verification, we queried the Infegy Social Dataset for posts mentioning the entity, McDonald’s, as well as inflation-related terms like “price increase,” “cost,” or “value menu.” We quickly found that a large proportion of traffic was from Reddit, with a few viral posts responsible for much of the attention. One post showed a $17 sandwich meal, while another post, pictured below, showcased how regular menu item prices had surged over the last ten years since 2014.

We look at a Topics analysis, located in Figure 3, to see how specific menu items appeared within these underlying posts. As shown in the word cloud below, we found that Oreo McFlurries and Big Macs appeared within a predominantly negative context, meaning social media users were talking about them negatively. In general, if you’re a brand strategist working at a large food and beverage company, social listening data can be crucial to see how consumers view specific products within your brand.

With a news or popular story, we’d typically see Twitter data representing 60-70% of the data. However, Twitter data only represents 17% of the inflation-related post volume in this case. Reddit data, a much smaller platform with many times fewer users, attracted 12% of the post volume, a remarkably high proportion of the overall conversation.

Image 3 - Reddit Header
Figure 3: Charts showing elevated Reddit post volume (June 2021 through June 2024); Infegy Social Dataset

Looking at inflation-sized McDonald’s post volume

We've just looked at the specific inflation-related content. Let's look at the brand's overall post volume to see how much inflation-related attention McDonald's has received. Figure 4 shows extensive post volume growth for McDonald’s over the last 14 years (shown in the top two trend charts). However, as shown in the first bar chart below, much of that volume growth has been driven by negative sentiment. A particularly troubling sign is 2024, which shows a much higher share of negative post volume versus positive post volume, suggesting a worsening PR crisis for McDonald's.

Additionally, we've seen an extensive increase in McDonald's inflation-related post volume. Conversation started to rise around 2021 but skyrocketed in 2022 and 2023. The 2024 data is the most troubling. While we're only halfway through the year, McDonald's price increase post volume has already surpassed the entirety of 2023.

Image 4 - Overall Trends
Figure 4: Aggregated source bio topics around “rainbow washing” (June 2019 through June 2024); Infegy Social Dataset.

McDonald’s business risks - intent to churn surging

Those post volume and sentiment distribution metrics are particularly troubling. However, let’s look at Themes for a more granular and specific view of business risks for McDonald’s. In Figure 5, we’re showing both Intent->Churn and Business Risk over the last decade. Intent->Churn refers to the discussions where customers discuss a desire to spend their money elsewhere. In contrast, Risk refers to overwhelmingly negative indicators mentioned within a collection of documents (think illness, crime, or injury). Intent->Churn and Risk matches the correlation associated with inflation-related McDonald’s post volume in both cases. McDonald’s must get ahead of this crisis before it’s too late.

Image 5 - Business Risks
Figure 5: Showcasing Infegy’s business risk indicators within the context of Mcdonald's (June 2021 through June 2024); Infegy Social Dataset.

Takeaways for your brand

Social listening is crucial for brands to stay attuned to consumer sentiment and swiftly address potential PR crises. For McDonald's, understanding the negative backlash over price increases through tools like Infegy Starscape can provide actionable insights to mitigate risks, strategize effectively, and monitor a response to make their customers happier and provide more value to their shareholders. Listening to thousands of consumers across social media and responding appropriately can help protect and enhance your brand’s reputation in a competitive market.

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