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Inside McDonald’s bold–but maybe not bold enough—strategy to turn customers into super fans

How the Golden Arches wants to turn its ubiquity into loyalty and love.

Inside McDonald’s bold–but maybe not bold enough—strategy to turn customers into super fans
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Back on September 3, artist Travis Scott dropped a cryptically branded Instagram post featuring a suspiciously familiar action figure arm reaching out of a McDonald’s bag. It preceded the fast-food giant’s official announcement of their collaboration by about six days, and led to fans lining up at McDonald’s drive-thrus asking for the Travis Scott meal before any of the brand’s actual advertising had even launched.

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That is the power of fandom.

And now it has become a central tenet of the Golden Arches’ long-term marketing strategy.

The company today unveiled its first new overall business plan to investors in about three years. Dubbed “Accelerating the Arches,” this new strategic initiative has three primary pillars: A renewed commitment to core menu products like burgers, chicken, and coffee to tap into consumer demand for familiarity; doubling down on what it calls the “3 D’s,”—digital, delivery, and drive-thru; and maximizing marketing by “investing in new, culturally relevant approaches to effectively communicate the story of brand, food, and purpose.”

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What does all that mean? In sum, McDonald’s wants its best customers using its app to order the classics for takeout and delivery while making them feel good about being so loyal to the fast-food giant.

The development of this shift in focus began in September 2019 when the company swapped Omnicom ad agency DDB for independent shop Wieden + Kennedy, an agency that has made its name by creating breakthrough work for major brands. I wrote back then that “the key to much of W+K’s recent success, whether it’s the Kaepernick ad for Nike, finding ever weirder ways to play with the Colonel for KFC, or somehow tying Bud Light to Game of Thrones, is how it’s able to push clients to take risks for greater creative reward.”

This is exactly what McDonald’s U.S. chief marketing officer Morgan Flatley wants.

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A human, storytelling brand

Flatley says that over the past 12 months, she’s been focused on how McDonald’s can build deeper connections and more engaged storytelling with customers. “One of my passion areas is great creative, and it’s only through delivering great creative that we will be able to break through,” she says. “So we’re putting a greater spotlight on marketing and how we can connect with consumers better with inspiring, emotionally charged, culturally relevant creative [work], because I do think that’s how we’re going to make those connections in this world.”

During the ad agency pitch process last year, one of the most significant insights W+K focused on was how, in the United States, the McDonald’s brand operates on a few different levels. It’s a big corporate brand, but it also has 14,000 restaurants that are locally owned and operated franchises. “So how do we talk more about the human work we’re doing in our communities—and the global corporate brand work we’re doing around the planet—all with a similar voice?” says Flatley.

Part of that answer is where the brand feels that it can boost its creative output, through what Flatley calls “fan truths.”

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“It’s about how we have millions and millions of fans of McDonald’s,” Flatley says. “How do we talk about what they love about McDonald’s in a way they would talk about it? So you’re actually listening to a conversation between two people who just crave our fries. Or two people who are out late and can’t wait to grab a Big Mac. That pivot has helped unlock so much of the creative we’re launching.”

This week, McDonald’s is launching a new national ad campaign called “Served Here,” which trades in the pop culture tack for more brand purpose. It features three new spots. They don’t focus on a new deal or menu item, but the work McDonald’s does beyond its own arches. One uses a potato farmer to highlight its local sourcing. Another features Ronald McDonald House and the work it does to assist sick kids and their families. The other zeroes in on local community work, including the company’s “Thank You Meals” program that donated 10 million meals to frontline workers.

From meal deals to meal experiences

A one-two punch of pop culture and purpose is what Flatley hopes will help foster the kind of passion and loyalty that can drive sustained long-term growth. One gets the kids excited, while the other makes the grown-ups feel good (or less guilty) about going in the first place.

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The thinking behind the Scott and J Balvin collaborations ties directly into the idea of brand fandom. Here are two pop stars who are genuinely fans of McDonald’s, and the brand leveraged that to make their favorite meals part of the canon. Toss in a hearty side hustle of limited-edition merch like t-shirts, jackets, and $300 jeans, and you’ve got hypebeasting, plus fries and a drink.

Part of the appeal here, though, is the novelty of world-famous artists teaming with a behemoth food brand. If McDonald’s aims to keep boosting its numbers and fandom with a streetwear-like strategy, it also needs to recognize that a significant part of that power resides in limitation and exclusivity. You can’t roll out a Travis Scott-scale collaboration every month, and the proximity of the Balvin meal to the Scott one blunted the power of the strategy.

In addition, McDonald’s is not the only fast-feeder that sees the potential in these collaborations. Witness Dunkin’s recent success with its collaboration with TikTok sensation Charli D’Amelio. After debuting her signature drink “The Charli” (Dunkin’ Cold Brew with whole milk and three pumps of caramel swirl), the brand saw saw a 57% boost in app downloads, sold hundreds of thousands of “The Charli,” and increased cold brew sales by 20%. If everyone is pursuing this same strategy, more pressure falls on McDonald’s to find angles that are more creative.

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“When I look back on the past few years, we’ve tended to be transactional: ‘Come try this new item, it’s only here for a short time,'” Flatley says. “It’s like a quick hit and then you’re done, versus building an intense fandom and loyalty that exists with a lot of the most loved brands in the world. McDonald’s is one of the biggest and iconic, but I think our challenge now is to make it one of  the most loved brands in the world.”

Flatley’s absolutely right about the brand needing to be more bold in order to break through all the cultural clutter in order to get people’s attention for long enough to excite fans or create new ones. The new campaign looks great, but doesn’t feel that much different from some of the work we’ve already seen. The company has been hyping its role in local communities and with farmers for years. With its collaborations, the question remains whether people are loving McDonald’s, or loving Scott for loving McDonald’s. There’s also a related “brand safety” issue, as some franchisees objected to Scott’s lyrics (though likely celebrated the sales his meal accrued).

But if McDonald’s is truly going to accelerate the arches, it needs to be more, well, arch—to take more Travis Scott-level risks—loosening the reins and allowing creative partners like Wieden+Kennedy to do what they do best.

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The new “Served Here” campaign feels like W+K has a hand tied behind its back.

Huge corporate brands are notoriously lumbering when it comes to adapting to new realities, but they remain relevant through sheer scale. In 2019, McDonald’s spent almost $500 million on U.S. advertising. Flatley and the company are telling us they now want to use that clout to create work that will be creatively surprising and culturally relevant. In order to do that, they have to reevaluate how they define creative risk, commit to actually pushing themselves, then take a page from another W+K client and just do it.

About the author

Jeff Beer is a staff editor at Fast Company, covering advertising, marketing, and brand creativity.

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