Marketers of The Year No. 2: McDonald’s

The massive restaurant chain’s marketing feels fresh, thanks to a fan-focused brand voice: by Jessica Whol, December 07, 2020


In a normal year, McDonald’s, like other fast feeders, would churn out work to take the brand from one promotion to the next in a set cadence. But 2020 was not a normal year, and the coronavirus pandemic and social unrest pushed the leading restaurant chain further away from its tried-and-true—and frankly, tired—marketing tactics. The result is bolder and fresher marketing and a fan-focused brand voice.

Even before COVID-19 hit the U.S., McDonald’s was pressing the reset button on its marketing. Last year, it selected as lead U.S. creative agency the New York office of Wieden+Kennedy—whose out-of-the-bucket thinking from Portland gave KFC cultural cred—after the Golden Arches’ bespoke Omnicom Group agency, We Are Unlimited, failed to spark stellar growth

“We were longing for great creative to help unlock this brand,” says McDonald’s U.S. Chief Marketing Officer Morgan Flatley, who joined the chain in 2017. And it’s starting to pay off this year as the brand sharpens its voice, reconnects with lapsed fans and brings in new ones. Its recent string of campaigns, from tasty close-ups of a Quarter Pounder to a series of celebrity-driven orders, is making McDonald’s a creative force to be recognized after years of being overshadowed in marketing by Burger King.

Pre-COVID plans

McDonald’s kicked off the year with “It’s Perfect Made Perfecter,” its first campaign from Wieden+Kennedy. The spots zoom in on the Quarter Pounder with Cheese and fries, but it’s how they are described, in a voiceover by actor Brian Cox, that set them apart from standard so-called “food porn” ads. A series of spots debuted during the Grammy Awards broadcast on Jan. 26 and immediately drew notice. “In the minutes since I heard the Brian Cox ASMR [in] a Mickey D’s commercial, I’ve found a new lease on life,” Brady Langmann wrote for Esquire. “Life can give me the occasional gift. Life can surprise me.”

A week later, a spot that ran before the Super Bowl showed go-to orders of celebrities including Kim Kardashian West, and joke orders from the likes of Dracula.

“They can speak fan to fan because there are so many fans of the food out there that have so many opinions about it,” says Brandon Henderson, lead creative director on the McDonald’s account at Wieden.

Little did McDonald’s or Wieden know just how much the idea of celebrity fandom would push the brand to new heights later in the year, leading to work one analyst called “a stroke of genius.” But first, McDonald’s had to put other pre-planned projects on hold.

Pandemic-driven work

With its new agency, McDonald’s marketing was ticking along. Then came COVID-19.

As a member of the company’s U.S. leadership team, Flatley was in virtual meetings three times a day, twice on weekends, in the pandemic’s early weeks. While the operations team was busy securing masks, gloves and other equipment for restaurants, her team of roughly 200, with the help of numerous agencies led by Wieden, needed to gently offer a sense of familiarity during an unprecedented time.

Suddenly, the usual marketing plans “just didn’t make sense given the environment,” says Flatley. “We became more human and more emotional much more quickly.”

An early campaign reminded people McDonald’s was open for drive-thru and delivery by showing McDonald’s locations turning on their lights. Directors of photography were sent out on their own to gather footage, a shift from how the brand typically would shoot a national campaign.

“We needed to be a voice of comfort, of reassurance,” says Jennifer Healan, who joined McDonald’s as VP of U.S. marketing in February.

McDonald’s then put its scale behind an emotional campaign, thanking first responders with free meals.

Wieden presented the “Thank You Meals” idea, then McDonald’s internal team suggested pieces such as putting the meals in the boxes used for Happy Meals. McDonald’s gave away more than 12 million Thank You Meals in a matter of weeks. Other restaurants, including independent ones, offered tokens of appreciation to first responders, but nothing that matched McDonald’s scale.

Soon, McDonald’s was among the brands that put out messaging around Black Lives Matter. Its efforts included “One of Us” ads showing the names of Black people who have been killed, including George Floyd, and using its media time during the BET Awards to promote Black activists.

Some critics wondered if such moves were meant to gloss over issues such as lawsuits brought by Black franchisees and protests by restaurant workers, many of them people of color, who say the chain ignored their requests for protective equipment and higher wages. “It just, emphatically, has not been,” says Flatley.

Still, as the world’s largest restaurant company, McDonald’s is in the spotlight. “They get a lot of media attention on these issues that are common throughout the industry,” says Cowen restaurant analyst Andrew Charles.

McDonald’s success has come while its rivals are largely growing as diners find comfort in food they know and contactless options such as drive-thru and delivery. The brand upped its 2020 marketing budget to stay ahead of the pack. Next, McDonald’s will do more with its app and other tech efforts, including voice-based AI ordering in its drive-thru that could make the process even speedier.

“They’re definitely holding their own in a strong backdrop for the industry,” says Charles.

The brand has continued with day-to-day marketing of its food, including more spots voiced by Cox.

Moving beyond COVID-19

Everyone—well, almost everyone—has a go-to order at McDonald’s.

Wieden and the chain’s other agencies were drafting a list of celebrity McDonald’s fans to illustrate that premise. Few would have predicted that squeaky-clean McDonald’s would team up with rapper Travis Scott to promote the brand. “They went to bat for it and they acted like a fan of their fans rather than like a giant corporation,” says Henderson.

When the rapper announced his Cactus Jack order, his fans raced to McDonald’s for the meal — a Quarter Pounder with cheese, bacon and lettuce, and fries, with BBQ sauce and a Sprite.

It wasn’t revolutionary food, but it was trendy, and just $6. Customers even ripped Scott posters off windows at restaurants and bought crew members’ T-shirts on eBay, along with official merch sold by McDonald’s.

McDonald’s quickly followed the success of the Travis Scott meal with one featuring J Balvin’s go-to order. They were buzzy campaigns, but they were also value plays.

Bundled value is “always an important value construct, but even more so now,” says Bernstein restaurant analyst Sara Senatore, and “the partnerships with Travis Scott and J Balvin was a stroke of genius in my view.”

Both promotions drove sales without adding items or complexity to the kitchen. And in September, when Scott’s meal was introduced, McDonald’s posted double-digit growth in comparable sales.

In November, McDonald’s partnership with J Balvin continued with a 60-second video from agency Alma, with lyrics he wrote, starring him dressed as employees and patrons at a McDonald’s, viewable in the chain’s app.

McDonald’s is reaching out more with its brand voice, which Healan describes as having “a sense of wit and charm, and there’s a little bit of self-depreciation.”

When the company tweeted about the McRib in October, more than two dozen brands interacted, as did fans of the product.

Along with Famous Orders, other things on McDonald’s marketing menu for 2021 include a long-awaited new chicken sandwich.

“There is something about McDonald’s brand,” says David Palmer, EvercoreISI restaurant and food analyst. “When it has momentum, things just seem to work better than you think.”