The massive scale of the QSR McDonald’s would seem to defy a personal approach to branding, but its “fan truth” strategy has cut through that, as Jennifer Healan, the brand’s VP/US Marketing, Brand Content and Engagement, explains in this interview with WARC US Commissioning Editor Cathy Taylor.

This article is part of the March 2022 WARC Spotlight US series, “For QSR brands, a menu of disruption, digital, and dazzle”. Read more

Key insights

  • McDonald’s has made major shifts in the last few years, backing away from a busy promotional schedule and towards an emphasis on brand, including simplification of the menu around core items.
  • Much of the brand focus has been around the “fan truth” strategy, which emphasizes that, “Everyone has a McDonald's order – it doesn't matter how big or famous you are.” This approach of superfan-speaking-to superfan has brought the brand’s creative work to life, from “Famous Orders” such as the Travis Scott Meal, to “Menu Hacks”, an idea that sprouted from social media, where fans have posted how they create new McDonald’s meals out of existing menu items.
  • The brand is increasingly about meeting its customers and fans where they are, and what is going to be convenient for them; part of that emphasis has been about the experience in Digital, Drive Thru and Delivery. The simplification of the menu is an extension of that; it developed out of the pandemic, when the increase in drive-thru activity meant that ordering had to be easier for both customers and employees.
  • As part of its emphasis on brand, McDonald’s is also focusing on integration across channels, so that everywhere the brand shows up, from advertising to the app, there is a look and feel that is branded.
It's been a wild few years. Can you give an overview of what you've seen in the QSR category since the pandemic started?

We’ve seen companies, and even the industry itself, really leaning in more to consumers' wants and needs, and being more connected to them. The pandemic was a moment in time when we needed to make sure our fans knew we were there for them. That has also been an ongoing trend, with brands prioritizing personalization and convenience.

Another trend we can point to, for McDonald's, is this idea of brand-building for the long term. Gone are the days of these short, limited-time-offer windows on the calendar.

Which were so typical at one point, right?

Promotion, promotion, promotion. But today's consumers are looking for more. So we're taking a horizontal approach to the brand versus a vertical moment, by moment, by moment. We've been able to bring that to life through our creative strategy. McDonald's had already been moving in that direction, but the pandemic gave us a moment to pause, reflect and accelerate some of the changes that were already underway. If you think about where we are now versus where we were even two years ago, so much has changed. For us to lean in to meet our fans where they are, we had to evolve. That actually helped us build the brand the way that we knew we needed to.

McDonald’s had just gone through an agency change right before the pandemic, and that usually signals a brand is looking to do things differently. You also just mentioned becoming a more horizontal brand. How did those things come together?

Wieden + Kennedy New York came on board at the end of 2019. I started at McDonald’s at the beginning of 2020, so we were both new. I have history working with Wieden Portland from my Coca-Cola days. With Wieden, we developed something called our “fan truth” creative strategy, and it truly has become the underpinning and the foundation that basically sparks everything we do.

The fan truth strategy starts with our understanding of what fans love about McDonald’s – and then, speaking superfan-to-superfan, using those insights to bring all of our work to life. Even thinking about our ad during Super Bowl 2020 featuring celebrities’ orders, it was about this simple fan truth, which was: Everyone has a McDonald's order – it doesn't matter how big or famous you are. And that actually was a jumpstart for an even a longer-term idea that we launched in 2020, which became, "Famous Orders." 

Our "fan truth" strategy also sparked some of the changes we've made to our brand voice. 

What was the positioning before fan truths?

It was more coming from McDonald's, the corporation, versus seeing the brand through the eyes of a fan. That has been the biggest twist, and it's why the brand voice has shifted to be more approachable and humanistic. There's a sense of wit, and there's also a sense of self-deprecation, and with self-deprecation comes connectivity. There's an approachability you're seeing throughout the work,  especially on social. On social, people call us "bestie" – it’s just super fun to see they think of McDonald’s as their bestie.

It's so different from the days of "billions and billions served." Now when I see the "Menu Hacks" campaign – an idea that came from fans creating new McDonald’s meals out of existing menu items – it all makes sense. It’s looking at the traditional menu from a new perspective.

Programs like "Famous Orders" and "Menu Hacks", as you mentioned, are all about McDonald's core menu items. That's what's brilliant about this work – it talks about our core menu, but it wraps it in something that feels different and new. So, from famous orders like Travis Scott, J Balvin, BTS, Saweetie, and Mariah [Carey], again, they’re inspired by the fan truth of “no matter how big or famous you are, everyone has a McDonald's order.” And then with "Menu Hacks" we actually shined a spotlight on our fans themselves, because this is a trend in social we saw all of the time.

That was on TikTok, right, among other places?

Yes – these were famous hacks that our fans had created, and at the end of the promotion this past February, we had 7.6 billion views of #McDonald'sMenuHacks. It's crazy! But it speaks again to the strength of the evolution of our creative strategy, which is fan-to-fan.

How does that back into streamlining the menu, so that you're really focusing on what made McDonald's great in the first place?

If we go back to what happened during the pandemic – the evolution of us meeting our consumers where they were – being there for them meant serving them in a streamlined fashion. So, knowing the dining rooms would be closed, the drive-thru had to hum – and that then led us to focusing the menu and simplifying it to those menu items that are core to the business, that really make McDonald's what it is. It also helped our crew members get through this difficult time, knowing that so many people were coming to us. At the very beginning of the pandemic, you would see people on social saying, "Us going to McDonald's to get breakfast, or us going to McDonald's get lunch, was the one of the brightest moments we had today." That menu simplification really helped us be there for our fans.

And then fast forward to September 2020, we continued to focus on those core menu favorites with the Travis Scott Meal, which ultimately became our overarching “Famous Orders” campaign. You can get a Travis Scott Meal even today, because it's on our core menu. It just was presented a little bit differently, and maybe in a way you hadn't thought about. You're like, “Oh, what's my order?” That really shows the power of the McDonald’s brand.

This intriguing use of celebrities, beyond endorsements, is a trend we're seeing throughout QSR right now. Where did that come from?

Celebrities have been a part of the McDonald's brand, really, from the beginning. There was a Michael Jordan meal, 30 years before "Famous Orders" was launched. What is special about what we've embarked upon over the last couple of years is thinking about celebrities as brand advocates and fans themselves. These collabs have truly been approached icon-to-icon, 50/50. The partnership and the development of the work and the creativity has been really special for each and every one of them. We’ve brought in new fans because of it. For example, with J Balvin and Saweetie, who featured the Big Mac in their meals, people were like, "I tried the Big Mac for the first time."

McDonald’s has quite a branding focus, but we've also moved to a time in QSR, where the app and website are all about transactions. How do you navigate that?

Integration is the name of the game. We integrate everything we do across all channels. The app is an ordering channel, but what we've been able to do is integrate all of our messaging. There is a look and feel that is branded. It's been really important as we build the brand that the "I" in integration is a capital “I”. The brand, wherever it shows up, it needs to be one brand across national, local, digital, film, etc. It’s something we work on every day.

How have you changed things at the drive-thru?

As we think about our overarching growth strategy for the business, it's all about Digital, Drive Thru and Delivery. We're always conscious of drive-thru time, and that's where simplification of menu comes into play. We're also thinking about other things that people can do to streamline their ordering experience, like Mobile Order and Pay. So, once they come through the drive-thru, they're fast-tracked to the window to get their food because they've already paid. People can also pull over for curbside, and just say they’re here, and their order will be taken out to them. We're all about meeting our customers and our fans where they are, and what is going to be convenient for them as they come to us.

McDonald's took a strong stance during the time of the Black Lives Matter protests. How is that commitment to diversity, equity and inclusion playing out over the long-term?

DEI is critical. It is so important for the brand, and it is how we lean into our values every day. The statement we made during the summer of 2020 shows that our voice can shift based on what our fans need from us. We wanted to show up and support them --  it was just the right thing to do. That's what drove us to share our “One of Us" message during the Black Lives Matter protests. And then again last March, we made another statement about stopping Asian hate. More broadly, in our everyday business, we are also approaching DEI through media commitments with diverse-owned companies and in our creative development. This is an ongoing journey, and something we'll continue to prioritize across our marketing and McDonald's as a whole.

We're in a very inflationary environment. How are you changing menu options, or pricing or messaging around that?

Value is very important to the brand and has been over time, and we will continue to provide it to our customers. Value comes in so many different forms, right? Value of a deal itself. Value in the experience of coming to McDonald's. Value in that we provide quality food that people love. Value is an overarching word; it’s something we've really enjoyed defining. It actually goes beyond just a deal, because while that is very important, especially in these times, value is broader than that. This place of familiarity and comfort in the experience that people have is also the value that McDonald's brings.

Is there any difference in how you emphasize price right now?

There are certain deals that we have, certain offers we have throughout the year. It is something we are very conscious of, and we will continue to provide for our fans.

One trend that's been going on in QSR is the rise of regional chains. Did that influence your decision to focus on more of a one-to-one connection?

It all comes back to our shift in creative direction. What I love to talk about is the tagline, "I'm lovin' it". It was introduced in 2003, and we've now breathed new life into this line. You think about the "I" and the “it”. What we've been able to do with the fan-to-fan strategy is the "I" really speaks from the voice of the fan, and the "it" can be so many different things that come from our fan truths.

Anything else you’d like to add?

It's been such an exciting time to be a marketer, and as I mentioned, evolution and integration have been the name of the game. As we have evolved McDonald's in our messaging, meeting our fans where they are with our fan truth strategy, and leaning into the values that we know are important to McDonald's, but also important to our fans. All of this has deepened our connection and our relationship with them. And that's what it's all about.