Redefining Cool with a “happy” meal

How do you refresh an 80 year old fast food joint? How do you take the iconic Golden Arches and Billions Served business and translate it to modern day consumer tastes? For McDonald’s there is no single answer to that question. Investing in higher wages, technology and customer service have all been part of the puzzle. 

Beyond the corporate investment in people and infrastructure is a marketing renaissance. Starting with Travis Scott and now including BTS and Sawettie is a burgeoning “Celebrity meals” craze that taps into connection on an emotional level in a very new way.

When Vrity measures the Quick Serve Restaurant (QSR) category there is little doubt what is the value with the most financial equity – Affordability. People want that value menu and McDonald’s is the leader in this value, consistently outpacing nearest rivals Burger King and Wendy’s.

What has been less clear in the category is how you can go deeper with consumers. Affordability is a core business value. Like quality and customer service they define your viability as table stakes. What begins to set brands apart are when they connect at the emotional level. McDonald’s has historically done better than most at producing Joy (minus the eternally creepy Hamburglar). 

By a wide margin the brand leads its competitors in that area. But in recent years the moves made by others in the space have thrown into doubt the cool factor consumers might associate with the brand. “The King” and plant-based meats have propelled Burger King forward in specific values while local and regional chains have made inroads by being more authentic to customers. 

Now comes the category smashing efforts to connect at a more direct audience level. Celebrity endorsements are always tricky because there has to be a level of product usage authenticity but also because the values of the endorser needs to translate for the brand and vice versa for a true economic impact to be felt. Otherwise it’s just another Super Bowl vanity project.

What is especially brilliant about the McDonald’s effort is they have found a way to connect with segments of their overall audience. Without concern for the “mainstream” reach the meal partnerships have largely been culturally focused to develop a deeper connection.

Overall the QSR category struggles to connect on the values level around Excitement. Short of a run on Popeye’s chicken there’s not a ton of “Must Eat Now!” moments. The ability to amplify that value of excitement, build on the joy the brand creates and still maintain its overall affordability position bodes well for the long-term success of the brand born in the 40s.  And it’s a lesson for other brands to learn from as they seek to connect on a values level with customers.