McDonald's Played a Game of 'Shark Tank' at SXSW, and Here's the Winner

Would a mobile app prevail or a print-leaning startup?

Much has already been made about McDonald's sponsorship of this week's South by Southwest Interactive. And regardless of whether you think the brand should be here, there's little doubt that the festival attracts a slew of startups that McDonald's wants to work with to revamp its image.

To put that concept in motion, McDonald's hosted three Shark Tank-styled sessions on Friday when startups pitched their best digital marketing ideas to a panel with execs from the fast-food corporation, as well as Coca-Cola and StoryTech. The aspiring entrepreneurs were tasked with reimagining one part of McDonald's digital business—either content, the restaurant experience or delivery/transportation.

The winner of today's competition (see below for which startup prevailed) gets a trip to brainstorm with McDonald's at its Oak Brook, Ill., headquarters.

Whether or not any of these ideas actually pan out for McDonald's isn't clear, but based on the packed crowd from the day's first session, the burger slinger certainly has piqued folks' interest.

Here is a rundown of what the four startups from the restaurant experience panel showcased today.


Lisnr's sound-based technology plugs into apps so marketers can activate based on a song or another audible noise.

For example, McDonald's app could pick up on music and sound playing in the background as someone is standing in the store. It's a similar concept to Shazam, but uses beacons to power the experience.

Lisnr's already been employed by Mondelez and Budweiser.

Bud used the technology during its Made in America music festival this summer to deliver coupons. According to Lisnr CEO Rodney Williams, the app sent out 20 to 30 location-based daily messages per user during the festival. Roughly 35,000 people downloaded the app, and 29,000 opted in to receive messages.

Williams said that he wants McDonald's to utilize his company's technology so that the brand can recognize in-store patrons. For example, imagine if an employee knew someone's name or normal/typical order as soon as they walked into a store.


The Cambridge, England-based startup adds interactive and digital components to print.

Novalia's owner Kate Stone demonstrated her technology on a poster of a drum during her pitch. Touching different sections of the poster triggered an audio clip of a drumbeat to play.

Beer marketer Beck's has already tried out the tech. For McDonald's, Jones played off of the brand's "I'm Lovin' It" slogan with a concept for a poster that lights up a heart when people touch it.

And while the bulk of discussion at the event was about mobile, Novalia's Stone pointed out that print is still more widespread than digital advertising. "[Print] is more pervasive than smartphones," she said. 

The concept of activating print media is probably appealing to a brand like McDonald's, which still pours money into traditional advertising.


Enplug powers digital displays and connected apps.The company's software plugs into social media and apps to pull up real-time feeds of user-generated content that can appear via digital displays and TV.

Granted, user-generated content may have a reverse effect for McDonald's based on its social media fails over the years.

One of the app's other interesting use cases is that it lets restaurants manage wait lists. While McDonald's obviously isn't a sit-down joint, the tech could also potentially be used to handle things like mobile ordering.


Snowshoe makes 3D-printed pieces of plastic that works with smartphones to pull up digital content.

Unlike most mobile technology out there that does the same thing (like NFC or QR codes), people don't need an app to use it because sensors are built into the plastic that all phones recognize.

Cameron Houser, vp of business development and product at Snowshoe, pitched the concept of putting kiosks with the 3D-printed chip into stores. Her idea was to take Happy Meal toys digital with Web content and games by tapping them against her company's technology. Houser also showed off a couple of mock-ups with sweepstakes, promotions and coupons.

Anyone who's been following McDonald's digital marketing over the past year knows that the chain is serious about mobile payments and this sensors-like stuff. The problem with other technology, though, is that it doesn't work with every phone.

Since Snowshoe's technology leapfrogs that problem, it is obviously an appealing proposition for McDonald's, which is likely why Snowshoe won today's competition.

"We dovetail nicely with so much that will probably be the restaurant of 2050 where people just don't love that feeling of 'where's my app?'" Houser explained.

And that's exactly what the Golden Arches wanted to hear.