Alberta ranchers hit the big screen and steal the show

A McDonald’s commercial that ran in movie 
houses across the country is getting rave reviews

You’re in a movie theatre, popcorn in hand, and the lights dim. You’re expecting another car or soft drink commercial but suddenly, there’s a rancher on your screen.

You may even know him. It’s Stephen Hughes, and he’s talking about transparency in a McDonald’s commercial about beef sustainability.

“I learned how many people go to the movies,” said the Angus rancher from Longview. “I went to the doctor yesterday and she’s like, ‘Well, guess what I saw?”

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Tens of thousands of Canadians from coast to coast saw the commercial about beef sustainability at the movies last month. McDonald’s purchased a ‘full blanket,’ so the commercial ran in every theatre showing top first-run movies. It also was shown on TV (including on hit shows such as “This is Us” and “The Good Doctor”) and now lives at the mcdsustainability.ca website (along with five other videos produced after filming this summer).

The movie version, titled “The Journey Ahead,” features ranchers talking about their stewardship of land and animals, and why they’ve been part of the effort to create certified sustainable beef.

It features stunning panorama shots of Hughes’ place, Chinook Ranch, but it’s the people — and their passion — that are the focus of the 60-second spot.

There’s well-known industry leaders Bob Lowe of Bear Trap Feeders and Cherie Copithorne-Barnes of CL Ranches along with others who can expect to be recognized a lot more often: Cecilie and Duncan Fleming and daughter Ricki of Fleming Stock Farms; Ben and Stephanie Campbell of Grazed Right ranch; and Reynold Bergen, science director of the Beef Cattle Research Council.

“You have a captive audience,” said Becky Bevacqua, McDonald’s Canada’s national marketing manager. “The lights are down, the phones are off, there are these big personalities on the screen.

“We thought it was a unique way to get the message across for this particular campaign.”

Hughes’ ranch was chosen because he was the first to sign up for the McDonald’s verified sustainable beef pilot project in 2014 and has built up a relationship with company officials.

The commercial, shot over three days in August, features sweeping drone footage, including shots of two of Hughes’ daughters herding cattle on horseback.

“We got some pretty neat footage of our places and some looks that I am not used to,” said Hughes. “I thought they did a nice job of accentuating a lot of positivity. This is a story and an opportunity for the entire industry to be involved.”

Jeffrey Fitzpatrick-Stilwell, McDonald’s top sustainability official for North America, was asked to find ranchers for the commercial.

If he thought folks would be shy, he quickly learned otherwise.

“I reached out and every single person that I asked said, ‘Yes,’” he said. “We pared it down because we had such a great response,” he said.

“For marketing, it was really critical that people who were going to be in the video were people who had helped along the way and participated in the Canadian Roundtable for Sustainable Beef and who wanted to see that succeed. It’s great for me that marketing had that as a goal.”

The marketing team came up with a list of questions for the ranchers, but there was no coaching on what they wanted them to say, said Bevacqua.

“We told them up front how we would be shooting this — more of a documentary style, if you will — to just get them to be open and honest, and tell their story,” she said. “We wanted it to be as natural, real, and authentic as possible. It really is that speaking from the heart about why they are doing this, and why it is important to them.”

The commercial starts with Hughes doing just that.

“The consumer wants transparency, I’m fully prepared to give you full transparency,” he says, throwing his arms out wide. “I haven’t hidden anything from you guys the last three days.”

In one of the internet videos, Ricki Fleming talks about how when it’s -40 C and calving time, she’s not sitting at home wrapped in a blanket.

“You got calves in the porch and calves in the tub and calves in the truck trying to get ’em warmed and mothered up,” she says. “You go above and beyond. You put the livestock first and yourself second.”

One of Ben Campbell’s unscripted lines became the title for an entire segment on grass.

“(Some people) look out on the pasture and they think it’s an overgrown lawn,” he says. “But it’s so much more than that. When I look at a pasture, I see a mini Amazon rainforest.”

Even though they didn’t have a ‘speaking part,’ the Campbells are in the commercial shown on the big screens and it didn’t take long for texts to start pinging on Ben’s smartphone.

“Most of the time people are just giddy to see someone they know in a movie theatre,” said Campbell, who worked as an engineer in Calgary before giving up a steady paycheque to start ranching near Black Diamond.

Ben Campbell, pictured with wife Stephanie, says friends and family are excited to see them on the big screen, but his hope is that more ranchers will join the sustainable beef initiative.
photo: From McDonald’s “The Journey Ahead”

“I have had conversations with people about it. I believe it’s a good thing to be part of and I want to promote the (Verified Beef Production Plus) program.”

VBP+ is a key part of the certified sustainable beef initiative, which is based on standards (called indicators), audits, and a tracking process for cattle and beef as they move through the supply chain.

“If there’s no traction through the public or through ranchers; if enough ranchers don’t sign up to be a verified producer; or if Canadians don’t care about it or don’t think it’s a genuine program, it’ll just be a flop — or dead in the water,” said Campbell.

“That would be sad. This is what needs to happen in the beef industry.”

Even though driving to the city to catch a movie isn’t high on ranchers’ to-do list in November, the commercial was aimed as much at them as the general public.

And thanks to the internet, the commercial and videos are being watched on ranches and farms across the country.

“We have had a very positive reception, particularly from the industry,” said Bevacqua. “Ranchers and farmers sharing the video and sharing content, and giving kudos and thanks back to McDonald’s for giving them the opportunity.”

Fitzpatrick-Stilwell received phone calls, emails and texts praising the commercial.

“People are writing him saying that McDonald’s knocked it out of the park with this, and they’re just so proud,” she said. “Cecilie Fleming even texted him last night to say she’s so proud, she’s getting so many phone calls and emails, and having people congratulate her on it. So it’s full of positive feedback coming in.”

McDonald’s Canada is currently rolling out the new certified sustainable beef logo and the company plans to ‘continue the conversation’ by having ranchers and others in the beef sector (several industry players also appear in the ads) tell their story in their own words.

“At the end of the day, they’re the best ones to do that,” said Bevacqua. “They live it and breathe it every day. We couldn’t be doing what we’re doing without them. It’s just such an honest way to communicate.”

Chinook Ranch provided a spectacular setting for McDonald’s pitch for certified sustainable beef.
photo: From McDonald’s “The Journey Ahead”

About the author

Reporter

Alexis Kienlen lives in Edmonton and has been writing for Alberta Farmer since 2008. Originally from Saskatoon, she has also published two collections of poetry and a biography about a Sikh civil rights activist. Her freelance work has appeared in numerous publications across Canada.

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