Five Questions with McDonald's Global Brand Officer Kevin Newell

Exec Talks About Chain's Natural Fit With the Olympics

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In one month, the London Olympics will be underway, and once again, McDonald's is a major sponsor for the games. The world's largest chain by sales has been the official restaurant sponsor of the Olympics since 1996 and has renewed that sponsorship through the 2020 Olympics.

Kevin Newell
Kevin Newell

At the Olympic village this year, McDonald's will have its largest restaurant location ever. The chain will also be running advertising by DDB. In one spot, LeBron James and Luol Deng go one-on-one for fries and a Big Mac. In another, kids compete against each other for various McDonald's products.

The kids in that DDB ad hint at one of the chain's major initiatives: children's exercise, nutrition and well-being. For the Olympics, McDonald's is tying its efforts to a global kids' exercise initiative called Champions of Play. As part of the program, which will be executed at the global, regional and local levels, kids will be encouraged to engage in physical activity. Fliers in millions of Happy Meals will prompt them to earn activity points through various forms of exercise and then track the points online.

At the front of the Olympics branding is Kevin Newell, who became the chain's global brand officer in early 2011. Prior to that , he served as U.S. senior and restaurant support officer for the U.S. West division. Ad Age caught up with Mr. Newell, who was also an Olympic trials runner in the 200-meter race in 1980, to talk about the Olympics messaging and how it ties to McDonald's overall brand strategy.

Ad Age : How would you describe the McDonald's Olympics strategy, and how has it evolved over the years?

Mr. Newell: From a priority standpoint, we're looking to deliver great messages around the quality of our food, children's well-being, as well as our people. ... We think about the ideal of the Olympics as well as the Olympic athletes, and we look at how those ideals align with McDonald's. And quite frankly, they really align quite well with our most fundamental principal -- and that is every day in our restaurants around the world, with every customer visit, our goal is to be excellent.

We seek to deliver that in the restaurants through our operations excellence. I know, having been not just in marketing but on the operations side as a general manager here in the U.S. business, the great lengths we go through to ensure the quality of our food and where it's sourced from.

Ad Age : The Olympics kids' initiative, Champions of Play, is the largest kids' initiative McDonald's has done to date. Can you talk about the strategy behind tying your largest kids' initiative to the Olympics?

Mr. Newell: It's designed to reach millions of families through a variety of materials and resources at the restaurants and online. What we're trying to do is encourage fun, active play as well as smart eating. [Olympics medalist] Dara Torres is our global ambassador for Champions of Play. We think [this] lends a lot of credence, and helps us connect with kids and families. ... From the standpoint of the kids, being to go online and track their activities and get encouragement from athletes at the Olympic village, that 's a once-in-a-lifetime experience for any kid.

Ad Age : What's the online program?

Mr. Newell: Kids can play virtual swimming across the Atlantic, and go online and track it and talk to the athletes at the Olympics. The site, championsofplay.com, will be translated to 41 different languages and will feature the athletes, who will inspire kids to get active. There's a lot of really fun stuff for the kids to get involved with. With the Happy Meal packaging at the Olympics, we're going to include playbooks and magazines, which will include information and tips on healthy eating.

Ad Age : The Champions of Play will go on past the Olympics. How will that work?

Mr. Newell: We never looked at this as a "one and done" [program]. As part of our children's well-being strategy, where we're encouraging smart healthy eating with activity and education, we look for this to be part of the ongoing process in all the countries we're in around the world. We're looking for every area of the world to take this and move forward in fun and engaging ways.

Ad Age : How do you respond to the critics of the McDonald's Olympics kids' initiative, who have said that McDonald's continues to serve unhealthy food to kids -- even with the new menu items and a focus on kids activity?

Mr. Newell: I will respond by telling them the real story, and that is that our food really is great tasting, high-quality food, and it is part of who we are. Our tradition as the official restaurant of the games began in 1996 and we're very proud of that . Serving high-quality food is job No. 1. ...If you think about how we bring food to market, we have a gold standard supply-chain standard that is the envy of the industry.

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