McDonald's Elevates Ads to Pop Culture Icons

How to sell a sandwich

Photo: Todd Huffman; Food Styling: Emma Feigenbaum/Big Leo

You know you have achieved the status of marketing legend when you don’t need to even put your name on your communications and still everyone gets the message.

For a French campaign last year, McDonald’s, selected as Creative Marketer of the Year at the 2014 Cannes Lions International Festival of Creativity, employed pictures of burgers, French fries and sundaes free of any tagline or even those familiar golden arches. It proved a popular, low-key pitch for a brand that nonetheless was immediately recognizable to consumers.

Such an approach is not what one would expect to find in a fast-food category known more for its promotional come-ons than inspired subtlety. But McDonald’s has always stood out among its rivals, amassing over the years a body of award-winning work customized to local markets while befitting the company’s potent global footprint.

McDonald’s first won at Cannes in 1979, earning a gold Lion for TV, and has gone on to land 77 Lions spanning categories including creative effectiveness, cyber, film and media. 

In an industry in which a client’s loyalty to agencies fluctuates with the most recent quarterly earnings, McDonald’s has maintained decades-long relationships with its primary partners: DDB, Leo Burnett and TBWA. Even now, as the company faces its first global sales decline in a decade, those in charge of McDonald’s marketing vow not to lose their creative nerve. 

“What we’ve learned over the years is that the framework has to be much more strategic, so themes like storytelling are critical; themes like simplicity, being optimistic and welcoming are critical,” says Matt Biespiel, McDonald’s senior director, global brand development. “We need to go from a tactical, more executional framework to a much more strategic inspirational framework.”

Some examples:

• McDonald’s Canada set an unprecedented standard in fast-food transparency with “Our food. Your questions.” The digital effort invited consumers to ask questions in about the company’s ingredients, with no topic—including the notorious beef filler known as “pink slime”—off limits. The pitch was so successful that it was expanded to 10 other countries.

• In Australia, a free iPhone app dubbed “TrackMyMacca’s” enables customers to source suppliers of the ingredients of the food they just purchased. 

Track My Macca's

• South Africa, while one of the chain’s smaller markets, boasts a creative profile that eclipses its size, winning more Lions than any other McDonald’s market, thanks to work like the beautiful “Lil Monsters,” a print campaign that portrays children as horrible creatures in an effort to promote the chain as a birthday party venue.

• The U.K. also continues to be a creative wellspring for McDonald’s. Around the 2012 Olympics, the “We All Make the Games” integrated campaign drew heavily on social media and helped generate, in August 2012, the company’s single biggest sales month up to that point.

‘The People Business’
More recently, the company’s efforts to promote nutritional transparency have dovetailed with its literacy initiatives. Last year, McDonald’s became the largest book publisher in America when it substituted books for toys in the Happy Meal. Some 47 million nutrition-themed books were distributed across a two-week period last November. 


Ray Kroc, the legendary founder of the company, “used to say McDonald’s is not in the hamburger business, it’s in the people business,” relates Mark Tutssel, worldwide chief creative officer of Leo Burnett, the agency behind the book effort. “They see no difference between the communications they create and the food they serve. How do you create human value? Is it stimulating, interesting and relevant to consumers’ lives? Wherever the brand resides, it has a deep relationship with people.”

A large part of that grassroots connection is the chain’s decentralized approach to creative development. The company, which is powered by franchisees, calls it “freedom within a framework,” and it is built on local execution around larger brand concepts. “The beauty of lines like ‘I’m lovin’ it’ is that it allows markets to interpret it locally as well as within the larger context of the brand’s values,” explains DDB Worldwide CEO Chuck Brymer. (“I’m lovin’ it” has become one of the best-known taglines ever since being introduced 11 years ago.)

“It’s an aspirational statement that should sum up someone’s response after seeing and enjoying a piece of McDonald’s content,” offers Biespiel. “The creative has to earn the right to use those words. And it’s not just those words, it’s the five [musical] notes [accompanying them] that are as recognizable around the world as the phrase.”

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