Everybody knows McDonald’s. When kids learn to read, one of the first letters they recognise is M. Because of McDonald’s. If you don’t have kids, you’ll just have to trust me on this one.
Here’s an anecdote. I’m in the elevator at the Empire State Building, circa 1990, surrounded by my fellow visitors. A little girl, obviously getting hungry, asks her dad, “Is there a McDonald’s near here?” Dad replies, without a trace of irony, “There’s a McDonald’s everywhere, honey.”
He’s not too far wrong. According to my pal Google, there are branches of McDonald’s in Roswell New Mexico, Israel’s Negev desert and even Guantanamo, Cuba. There may be some among you who don’t like McDonald’s, but around 68 million other people a year do.
One of the things we’re often told about successful brands is that they’re consistent. Not only in style, content and service, but also in their communications. Yet if you look at the ads that led to McDonald’s becoming this year’s Brand of the Year at the Epica Awards, they are an extremely diverse bunch.
There are touching ads, like the reunited sweethearts in the film “What We Love” from Leo Burnett Germany.
There are visual puns like “Fishing Hook”, again from Germany.
There are savvy film and social media crossovers like “We Hear You” (parts 1 and 2) from Leo Burnett Chicago.
Meanwhile, the offerings from Leo Burnett London run the gamut from funny to poetic (congrats to Jake Mavity for his emotionally pitch-perfect direction of “We Are Awake”).
Leo Burnett London’s most unusual entry is for McCafé. To express the idea that the brand uses only ethically-sourced Arabica beans in its coffee, the agency hired a hand artist – yes,you read that correctly – whose hands became tropical wildlife in striking images shot by Jason Hindley. It proves that a brand with mass appeal can produce advertising that touches on art.
In France, where the brand’s slogan is “Come as you are”, the agency BETC Paris celebrated the UEFA 2016 soccer tournament by showing fans with the “mixed scarves” of competing nations: FRA-LAND or SWE-TALY. The idea is that football, like McDonald’s, can bring people together.
So what elements unite McDonald’s advertising around the world? I recently posed the same question to Jean-Pierre Petit, the brand’s chief operating officer, lead international markets. He replied: “Youth, the family, sharing, innovation and quality are the constituent elements of the history of McDonald’s, and therefore naturally of its advertising.”
AN AMERICAN ICON
Although McDonald’s seems to have a knack for generating affection wherever its golden arches appear, to an extent it still feels like a quintessentially American brand, very at ease in the same sentence as Coca-Cola.
You may already know a little of the history of the company. It was founded in 1940 by Richard and Maurice McDonald, initially as a rather straightforward barbecue restaurant. But in 1948 they adopted the fast food serving method – or what they named the “Speedee Service System”.
If you’ve seen the somewhat controversial movie The Founder, starring Michael Keaton, you’ll be aware that the chain’s rise to global greatness began when a milkshake mixer salesman named Ray Kroc joined the operation as a franchise agent in 1955. He opened his first restaurant in Des Plaines, Illinois and quickly signed up other franchisees, driving rapid expansion. He finally bought the company from the brothers – who had never shared his empire-building vision – in 1961. Ray Kroc died in 1984, but the McDonald’s we know today is largely his legacy.
The red-and-yellow colour scheme, the Happy Meal, the surprisingly-not-scary clown Ronald McDonald – who appeared in his current form in 1967 – all of these entered popular culture. So iconic are the brand’s products that a couple of years ago the agency TBWA\Paris was able to run a highly graphic campaign featuring images of the Big Mac, the McMuffin, a red packet of fries and so on, with no lettering or explanatory text whatsoever. There was a sort of quick shock and a self-reflective chuckle as you realised you knew exactly what these shapes represented. And suddenly you fancied a snack.
The brand’s advertising has been formidable for years, notably with its historic partner Leo Burnett – often in a bit of a tug-of-war with DDB – but with other agencies too. It was an agency in Germany, Heye & Partner, that came up with the “I’m lovin’ it” slogan in 2003. I asked Jean-Pierre Petit if the brand’s advertising was obliged to vary from market to market. “Our creative approach must above all be different from those of our competitors and of other major brands. To achieve that it must resonate effectively with its times and with the tastes of its customers. In a world constantly swaying between the desire for roots and the abolition of borders and distances, it goes without saying that certain ideas will reflect local culture while others will have the capacity to travel widely.”
He also had some advice on how to get the best out of an advertising agency. “It’s essential to create the atmosphere of confidence necessary for innovation and risk-taking. For us, it’s a shared and mutual responsibility based on transparency, respect and time. Big agencies are generally talented – it’s the manner in which you work with them that makes the difference.”
The Epica Awards are currently open for entries.