McDonald's has a big problem in uphill turnaround

As McDonald's tries to reorganize itself and respond to a fiercely competitive restaurant industry, it has another issue to contend with: an image it can't shake.

"It is the poster child of fast food—all that's good and all that's bad," says Alan Siegel, CEO of branding consultancy Siegelvision, in a phone interview.

McDonald's Big Mac Extra Value Meal
Source: McDonald's

Siegel says the fast food behemoth has been "reactive instead of proactive" as it tackles the issues it faces.

In recent years, many restaurants have stressed improvements in food quality and customization, and CEO Steve Easterbrook acknowledged in a recent video detailing the turnaround that change outside the company has moved faster than it has at McDonald's during the past five years.

"I think they should be criticized for not responding faster and more intelligently," Siegel said.

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Part of McDonald's challenge lies in crafting a more effective way of sharing what they have accomplished, said Mike Donahue, former chief communications officer at McDonald's U.S., in a phone interview. After a nearly 20-year run at McDonald's, Donahue retired and later co-founded LYFE Kitchen, a restaurant that markets healthy meals.

This is made more difficult because McDonald's "has become the symbolic scapegoat for anyone wanting to use a generic word to describe obesity or health problems" due to its size as the largest restaurant chain, he says.

"Anyone that wants to be a critic for food or health issues, their mind SpellCheck inserts McDonald's, and that's a major problem if you want to bring in more customers," Donahue says.

McDonald's was not immediately available for comment.

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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."