The myth of never-ending growth.

January 1, 2003

January 2003

“We have to grow the business” is usually the first public statement of a new CEO.

Growth solve

s all problems, goes the current thinking. So the CEO sets the target for next year’s sales increase. Five percent, 10 percent, 15 percent, depending on how aggressive the new chief executive is.

Even if a company misses its target, a “stretch goal” is considered to be a good thing. As Leo Burnett once noted, if you reach for the stars, you may not get any stars, but you won’t wind up with a handful of mud either.

When you look at the situation from a mathematical point of view, a stretch goal may not be such a good idea after all. Except for small increases made possible by increases in population and in the consumer price index, never-ending growth is mathematically impossible.

Fifteen percent annual growth over a 50-year period would mean that sales in the last year would be 1,083 times the initial period. While this might be possible for a startup, it’s physically impossible for any mature company.

Sooner or later, a mature brand (not company, but brand) reaches an optimum point where further growth can come only from population and C.P.I. increases. Recognizing this fact will solve many marketing and management problems.

Take McDonald’s, for example. Per-unit restaurant sales in the U.S. have been essentially flat the past nine years.

1993: $1,550,000

1994: $1,577,000

1995: $1,538,000

1996: $1,439,000

1997: $1,399,400

1998: $1,458,500

1999: $1,514,400

2000: $1,539,200

2001: $1,548,200

In other words, domestic sales last year (on a per-unit basis) were actually less than they were in 1993.

What has McDonald’s management done in the past nine years to try to “grow the business?” They have spent heavily on new menu items, new cooking equipment and new promotions. All supported by massive consumer advertising programs. (Over the past nine years, McDonald’s has spent more than $5 billion on U.S. advertising.)

Maybe, just maybe, a McDonald’s restaurant of a given size and location has reached its optimum sales level of about $1.5 million a year. McDonald’s has nothing to be ashamed of. The average Burger King unit does only $1.1 million in the U.S.

Suppose this assumption is true. Suppose McDonald’s has reached its optimum sales level. What are the implications for McDonald’s strategy?

McDonald’s should reduce its menu options, reduce its advertising budget and reduce the number of its consumer promotions. The goal should be to try to maintain that $1.5 million a year per-unit average while reducing expenses and increasing profits.

Does that mean that the McDonald’s Corporation should give up on growth? Not at all. They always have the option of introducing new brands which could go through the same cycle of (a) startup, (b) accelerated growth and (c) maturity.

There is a time to grow and a time to take your foot off the accelerator. Now might be the time for McDonald’s and other brands in similar situations to face that reality.