Are McDonald's and Walmart Winning the War on Obesity?

This week, the two companies adopted new tactics that could indicate a turning point in how the food industry fights fat


Sometimes history's turning points—Stalingrad, Waterloo, Gettysburg—are not readily apparent. While we may not recognize it yet, we have just witnessed a milestone in the War on Obesity. In the last week alone, two iconic food companies (Walmart and McDonald's) unveiled plans representing major changes in the way they market their products and services: Walmart announced that it intends to open 300 stores in areas without access to fresh produce and healthy foods (so-called "food deserts"), while McDonald's is reformulating its Happy Meals to make them healthier. Is this the tipping point we have been waiting for?

The divide between food corporations and public health advocates and activists on who is responsible for America's obesity crisis and what should be done to address it is well chronicled. It has taken on the air of a war that resembles the Boehner-Obama deficit brouhaha, with not much progress on reversing obesity rates.

Corporate strategists are fond of adopting lessons from the great military tacticians and routinely use military metaphors when confronting adversaries: They launch assaults, penetrate markets, and crush the enemy. And the fight with public health advocates and activists has not disappointed. But this week marked a seismic shift in tactics.

What we are seeing is a transformation—a transformation from hostility to enlightened self-interest. Instead of a direct frontal assault proclaiming that plenty of healthy items are available to the consumer, or that individuals must be responsible for their own health, Walmart and McDonald's have found a way to align their business goals with the public's health needs. They are rewriting the traditional playbook.

Here are the new rules of engagement on display this past week:

  • Launch a "pre-emptive strike." In a speech to cadets at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point on June 1, 2002, President George W. Bush advanced one of the key tenets of what is now called the Bush Doctrine, stating: "If we wait for threats to fully materialize, we will have waited too long." While most Americans now disagree with the misapplication of this policy in Iraq, it is a powerful tactic for marketers. Astute food corporations have understood that the push to regulate foods and beverages of "poor nutritional quality" is gaining momentum and that it's better to get ahead of that steamroller rather than get run over by it.

    This is not to say that they agree with such claims against their products, but it's just smart business. After all, the cost to defend and lobby can run into the tens of millions of dollars and take valuable time away from growing their businesses. By announcing a reduction in its portion size of fries and the addition of apples to the venerable Happy Meal, McDonald's has successfully deployed this tactic. Ditto for Walmart in overcoming resistance to placing its stores in inner cities as it seeks to help solve the "food desert" problem.

  • "Concentrate force." In his book On War, Karl von Clausewitz wrote of the need to bring overwhelming, synchronized power to achieve victory. With this week's announcement, McDonald's loaded up its arsenal to the fullest and offered a comprehensive plan to address issues surrounding its menu options as they relate to nutrition and obesity. Besides the previously mentioned reincarnation of the Happy Meal, McDonald's went much further, promising to promote nutrition and/or active lifestyle messages in 100 percent of its national kids' communications; reduce added sugars, saturated fat, sodium, and calories; provide funding for grassroots community nutrition awareness programs; and increase customers' and employees' access to nutrition information.

    Likewise, Walmart successfully employed this strategy by not only advancing its commitment to add 300 stores in food deserts, but also to make healthier food more affordable, eliminate trans fats, reduce sodium and added sugars, and develop a simple front-of-package seal for identifying healthier food choices.

  • "Win without fighting a single battle." In The Art of War, an ancient Chinese military treatise, General Sun Tzu hypothesized that direct conflict is inherently costly and therefore never a viable option. He stated that "A general that fights a hundred battles and wins a hundred battles in not a great general. The great general is one who finds a way to win without fighting a single battle." Through last week's actions, both Walmart and McDonald's applied this principle and thus can avoid long and costly skirmishes with public health advocates and activists who hope to dismantle their core business models. While it would be naive to presume that challenges by the food advocate camp would disappear, these actions go a long way toward setting a framework for progress in improving the nutrition of foods and beverages.

McDonald's and Walmart have raised the bar for what food companies can do to address public concerns about nutrition and obesity while still satisfying their need to turn a profit. Will others follow?

Images: Courtesy of Walmart; Courtesy of McDonald's