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McDonald’s: Corporate Social Responsibility Challenge

Case authorsThis case won The Case Centre’s Ethics and Social Responsibility Award in 2014. Congratulations to the authors Magdalena Öberseder, Elisabeth Götze, Anna-Maria
Saupper and Christian Wilhelmer (WU Wirtschaftsuniversität Wien) who explain what the award means to them, how they wrote the case, and why the fictional protagonist is so important.

Putting the spotlight on case writing

‘I am so happy and honoured that we have won this award,’ says Magdalena. ‘This is a great success as we are the first WU representatives that have been honoured with this prize.’

Elisabeth adds: ‘The award is so important because it puts the spotlight on case writing which usually does not gain much recognition compared to journal publications. We are so proud!’

‘Thank you so much,’ adds Christian. ‘The Case Centre Award means a lot to us. Special thanks to Richard McCracken for visiting us at WU to hand over the award personally!’ 

Why McDonalds?

‘My PhD research was on consumers’ perception of corporate social responsibility (CSR),’ says Magdalena. ‘I did some qualitative interviews with managers and consumers to get an in-depth understanding of consumers’ perception of CSR. McDonald’s was mentioned several times and I thought it would be great to look at this organisation in more depth. Anna and Christian liked my idea and chose this topic for their bachelor thesis. That’s how the story started…’

‘We realised there was a large discrepancy between the company`s efforts and their public awareness and positioning,’ says Elisabeth. We also thought it would be easier to reach a larger audience with a well-known company.’  

Fictitious character

‘During my PhD research I interviewed the CSR manager of McDonald’s Austria,’ says Magdalena. ‘As the findings were so interesting and added another perspective to the case, we included the manager as ‘Christopher Meyer’ in the case. I think it is easier for students to understand a topic if they imagine being the key protagonist. It is always good and helpful to see topics from different perspectives and step into another person’s shoes. Moreover, I think this makes the case more interesting and also helps the discussion in class.’

‘Students are supposed to assume Christopher’s role to better understand the dilemma McDonald’s is facing,’ explains Anna-Maria. ‘Despite its intensive CSR activities, interviews with customers suggested that its engagement was either hardly recognised or interpreted as “greenwashing”. To simply intensify CSR activities and/or communications does not seem to be the solution. The question for students is how to establish credibility in a way that makes sense from an economic perspective, too.’

A good storyline

‘Discuss the main issues with your co-authors to make sure you have a good storyline before you start writing the case,’ says Magdalena. ‘Start writing and then share the pieces of work again with your co-authors to see how they understand the case and how to improve it. Constructive feedback is important.’

Anna-Maria adds: ‘After having conducted the interviews, the case was actually “writing itself”. The main work was to do the in-depth field research required to explore customers’ perspective on McDonald’s CSR commitment. A good piece of advice is to be straightforward in describing the problem you wish to highlight in the case. My feeling with cases sometimes is that authors tend to lose focus.’ 

The big picture

‘I think it helps if one author is in charge of maintaining the big picture and not involved in the writing,’ says Magdalena. ‘That person can be more critical and ensure the story is clear for the reader. If you are involved in writing, it is more difficult to step back and see the big picture.’

‘Being specific about the underlying problem was a major goal when writing the case,’ says Christian, ‘and we’re happy that our efforts are appreciated. The case was clearly structured in advance, which meant that hardly any revision or redrafting was required.’

Teaching objectives

‘We hope to sharpen students’ understanding and feeling for ethical and moral questions,’ says Magdalena. ‘Moreover, they should be aware of the importance of this topic and its implication for our society. They should also understand that these issues come up in many different business situations.’

‘Nowadays, most companies are engaged in CSR activities,’ says Elisabeth. ‘We wanted to show the challenges McDonald’s had to address as its efforts were not producing the desired results. Therefore, the company had to reconsider its strategy.’ 

Teaching note

‘The case took longer to write than the teaching note,’ says Anna-Maria. ‘Since we focused very much on the core problem throughout the case, writing the teaching note was less time-intensive.’

Says Christian: ‘Of course, the teaching note only represents one of several solutions to the case. But it’s essential to give teachers an impression of what the authors had in mind when writing the case along with their own experiences of teaching the case.’

‘The teaching note should support the teacher in the case discussion,’ says Elisabeth. ‘Therefore, we focused on the main problem McDonald’s was facing, potential alternatives, and the recommended strategy. We also added some theoretical background information. If I choose a case for teaching purposes, I always look at the usefulness of the teaching note first!’

Working as a team

Classic cases

‘Apart from me there were three students,’ explains Elisabeth. ‘One PhD student and two bachelor students: Magdalena, the Phd student, had the overall lead of the project while the two bachelor students, Anna and Christian, collected the data and worked on the case. They had several meetings to discuss the findings of the data, the structure and story of the case and the teaching notes. I supported them and provided feedback, in particular after having tested the case in classroom.’

Engaging students

‘The topic is provocative,’ says Magdalena. ‘Is McDonalds an ethical and socially responsible company or not? What about consumers? What is their responsibility? This fosters good discussions in class and this is how I think you should teach ethics and social responsibility. These discussions shape students’ understanding of the importance of this topic in our society.’

Says Elisabeth: ‘Most students have personal experiences with McDonald’s and clear opinions on the topic. This fosters fierce discussions, enabling us to raise students’ awareness and sensitivity on ethics and social responsibility. And, of course, there is no single ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ answer in ethics, but many different standpoints.’ 

Case details

McDonald’s: Corporate Social Responsibility Challenge
Magdalena Öberseder, Elisabeth Götze, Anna-Maria Saupper and Christian Wilhelmer
WU Wirtschaftsuniversität Wien
Ref 711-033-1
Teaching note
Ref 711-033-8

About the authors

Elisabeth Götze is Senior Lecturer at the Department of Foreign Language Business Communication, WU Wirtschaftsuniversität Wien
e elisabeth.goetze@wu.ac.at

Magdalena Öberseder is Senior Market Research Consultant at GfK
e Magdalena.oeberseder@gfk.com

Anna-Maria Saupper is a Master’s Student at University of Graz, Austria
e AnnaMariaSaupper@gmx.at

Christian Wilhelmer is a Project Controller at AVL List GmbH
e ChristianWilhelmer@gmx.at

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