When Rodney King was dragged from his vehicle and mercilessly beat by south LA police in 1992, he triggered riots that tore apart that area of the city. King will be remembered for his plaintive admonition in the wake of the riots, “Can we all get along?”

One of the few positive things to take away from those horrible riots was the value of proactive community relations, as had been practiced by the minority entrepreneurs who owned the five McDonald’s restaurants in the riot and fire zone, which escaped unscathed, because those franchisees followed Ray Kroc‘s adage to give back to the communities they served, and put regular deposits of goodwill into the “trust bank” of social investing that McDonald’s has long followed.

I was director of corporate communications for McDonald’s in the 80s and 90s, and we told and retold the LA riots survival story to company employees and franchisees around the world. The philosophy survives today, just as those five restaurants did in 1992. Here’s the story:

In the area of South Central LA, a five square miles radius of devastation, the outcome was like a bomb. It resembled Nagasaki. Buildings had been looted and set alight. It was martial law.  The streets were dangerous. Many people were killed in the frenzy, either as a statement of opposition between the established powers and the disenfranchised or as a gateway for much deeper held sentiments regarding race, class, poverty, and divisions between the entitled and disentitled.

In the wasted landscape of South Central LA, everything had been destroyed. Everything except for five buildings. In the post-apocalyptic aftermath, surrounded by smoldering ruins and debris, there were five buildings which had been untouched. Not a broken window. Not a slash of spray paint.  All flooded in their usual operable fluoro lights.

These five buildings all had one thing in common. They were all McDonalds.

‘When the smoke cleared after the mobs burned through South Central Los Angeles in April, hundreds of businesses, many of them black owned, had been destroyed. Yet not a single McDonald’s restaurant had been torched.’

Edwin M. Reingold, June 29, 1992, TIME

Months later, Sociologists at Stanford University came aross this data. They were also intrigued. They sent teams into the field some time later. They went in to interview many involved in the riots.  They went in to discover what the story was here – not why the devastation had taken place, but why they hadn’t taken place at McDonalds.

Now it must be said, these were not the crème de la crème of society. They organized meetings and interviews with those who had pulled people out of cars and beaten them to death. When asked why McDonalds was spared, the answers were unanimous across all the interview centres. The general conversation went something like this.

“They are one of us.”

“What do you mean?”

“They ‘re looking after us.”

‘How could McDonalds ‘be looking after you’?

“Because we like to play basketball. There’s nothing else to do except get high and shit. McDonald gives us balls.”

It turned out that McDonalds had in fact supplied a number of basketballs to youth groups and basketball centres in these low socio-economic areas. Not thousand of balls. A few hundred.

“And the old men. My old man. They don’t have jobs or nothin. They don’t have nowher eto live. McDonalds gives them free coffee.”

It was true. In that area, McDonalds suppied several hundred free cups of coffee each morning. In terms of its profitability, a piss in the ocean,

Learnings

In a purely commercial sense, McDonalds gained years over Pizza Hut, Wendy’s, Denny’s, Taco Bell, Burger King, and every other fast food restaurant in the area that was razed to the ground. Each had to undertake major rebuilds and ascertain their strategic direction to decide whether South Central LA would be part of the strategic plan.

Even today, Tesco the supermarket leader of the UK is launching a ‘grocery gap’ stores in the same aea. Most of the old stores have disappeared. Wal-Mart fears to tread due to union barriers. Residents suffer lack of renewed investment.

Emotionally, financially and psychologically, McDonalds’ competitive advantage after the LA iots was vast. Lest we forget.  Marketing is not about producing advertisements. It’s the battle for the heart and mind of the consumer.

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