Just in the past year, McDonald's has announced several changes: pledges to source chicken raised without human antibiotics, sell milk that has not be treated with the artificial growth hormone rBST, add clementines and low-fat yogurt as side options in Happy Meals. It is also raising wages for workers at company-owned locations.
"This is not the McDonald's of 10 years, 20 years ago. Do they get credit for it? It's dubious," said Donahue.
But McDonald's has still struggled to attract diners to its stores. Comparable guest counts dropped 4.1 percent domestically in fiscal year 2014.
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For its part, McDonald's has doubled down on its efforts to change perceptions of the brand with its "Our Food, Your Questions" campaign, which aims to answer common questions about its food quality. It's also trying to hasten the pace of innovation at its restaurants and boost customization, a trend that has worked well for brands like Chipotle Mexican Grill.
Faith Popcorn, CEO of marketing consulting firm Faith Popcorn's BrainReserve, said the changes are "not dramatic" enough and the company is "perceived as cheap food, medium clean bathrooms—not the way it used to be."
"They're facing a tsumani or tornado," Popcorn said. "They're off-trend on food, sourcing, the planet, service."