Every year the Chicago River is dyed green for the St. Patrick’s Day Parade celebrations in March. The idea was born in 1961, when the organizers found out that the dye used to detect leaks into the river turned into a perfect, Irish green.
Just a few years later, the tradition stirred up controversy when environmentalists alerted the world that the oil-based dye was causing pollution and damage to biodiversity. The substance was replaced by vegetable-based dye and the tradition survived for decades.
This time, the move to dye the river green involves one of the most valuable brands in the world: McDonald's. McDonald's has a history of involvement with St. Patrick's Day celebration in Chicago, donating sales of a shamrock shake (a greenish mint shake) to Ronald McDonald House, its not-for profit organization which provides shelter to hospital patients relatives. In 2010, the promotion involved the creation of the world's largest Shamrock Shake which was strategically placed to paint the river green. In 2011, the Shamrock Shake was back, this time floating.
The attractiveness and exposure of the action is indisputable. But some argue the image of a floating McDonald's cup in green water automatically conjures up images of litter and river pollution, in times when the BP oil spill is still alive in people’s mind.
Even though the river coloring itself claims to be inoffensive to the environment, fading in about five hours, the pure association of McDonald’s with uncivilized actions was enough to raise negative consumers’ comments. Just a few reprimands include: "irresponsible and shameful," "an unfortunate by-product of fast food," and "toxic sludge."
McDonald’s is doing a great work around its corporate citizenship – not only to counter balance its image of a fast-food villain, but because sourcing sustainably, managing waste, investing in its people, and communities are strong business commitments. But to transform this reality into consumer trust, McDonald’s should guarantee that its consumers’ touchpoints are not sending contrary messages – even if the end goal is a noble one.