McDonald’s Elevates Ads to Pop Culture Icons

How to sell a sandwich

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.”

The bold graphics that are the centerpiece of the French campaign, which has since been updated using illustrations of McDonald’s menu items, underscore the brand’s resonance with consumers even without using its world famous tagline. “We wanted to remind people about McDonald’s iconic products,” says Jean-Marie Prenaud, evp, international at TBWA Worldwide, the agency behind the pitch. “It was absolutely amazing that without a logo everyone knew the products being advertised. It was a simple way to remind people how McDonald’s is a part of our food culture, and in France that is not easy to do. There is a lot of freedom with how you use ‘I’m lovin’ it’ or don’t use it.” 


While agencies are given the freedom to interpret the McDonald’s brand across individual markets, the company also draws upon its collective creative resources to determine the brand’s future global direction. For the last four years, McDonald’s has held a worldwide creative review across the globe. “We use that time to align our thinking about what is exceptional, what is average, what is below average,” says Biespiel. “We have a scale from 1 to 10, with 10 being the kind of work that sets the world on fire.”

McDonald’s also hosts a meeting during the annual Cannes festival where the creative heads of its agencies from around the world meet to discuss the brand’s creative strategy.

ideas from all over

It’s not just McDonald’s creative partners who are contributing to the process.

“McDonald’s really does have an understanding that good ideas come from anywhere,” stresses Kate Stephenson, president, global account management at Omnicom Media Group, which handles the chain’s media planning and buying chores. “It can come from a creative agency or from us. Where content is built is largely irrelevant. It’s ideas-led and media-neutral.”

Omnicom came up with the idea for McDonald’s “Coin Offers” in Denmark. In that effort, the consumer uses a smartphone app to scan QR codes in McDonald’s ads that generate digital currency that can be saved in a virtual wallet and then redeemed for purchases. The promotion proved so popular that bloggers and websites embedded the coins, and in the next phase of the campaign, the sites were supplied with higher value coins created especially for them. 


“In the next evolution of the idea, we said, ‘Let’s involve them,’” explains Mariel Cummins, group director, strategy at Omnicom’s OMD. “It was very seamless storytelling across all platforms and media.”

The media agency also created a special edition of Chile’s free newspaper La Hora, printed on brown paper and featuring ink that gave off a coffee aroma, to promote a McDonald’s coffee giveaway. On the first day, sales soared 100 percent.

Biespiel—who has an agency background, having been an account executive at Young & Rubicam and Ogilvy & Mather—points out that when McDonald’s won its first Cannes Lion in 1979, consumers still had to get off the couch to change the TV channel; now they carry video content in their pockets. Brymer, who has worked on the McDonald’s account since the 1970s, observes that a company once known for its TV-centric approach has lost little time following consumers’ changing media habits, even as it has retained its core brand values.

“As McDonald’s keeps pace with their customers’ lifestyles and embraces new channels like the Web, social and mobile, they’ve delivered across multichannels the same ideas and messaging,” he says. “It’s a brand that reflects human warmth, empathy. It’s more about great storytelling than price promotion as it tugs on the emotional connection the brand has with consumers.”

Next up for McDonald’s: the kickoff on June 12 of the FIFA games in Brazil, which happens to be the chain’s biggest World Cup effort to date. The company has hired a dozen artists from around the world to design 1.5 billion event-inspired French fries packages that also serve as augmented reality games consumers can use to bounce a digital soccer ball off real-world objects, making each game unique to the customer’s location.

That more intimate, personalized bond with consumers is where Biespiel sees the creative future of McDonald’s.

“We need to create a much more deep emotional connection with our customers,” he says. “To get there, we need to develop more and more strategies that focus not just on what we have to offer people but why they will love it. Asking that question is not always easy to answer, but when we do, we create that important connection.” 


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