Marketing powerhouse changed the ways Americans eat by emotionally selling a friendly, clean, fun dining experience with stunningly effective advertising

By Published on .

Most Popular
The golden arches. Ronald McDonald. The Big Mac. Combined, they add up to one of the most powerful marketing recipes of the 20th century.

From a small chain of hamburger joints in the 1950s to a global conglomerate with an almost unimaginable 25,000 restaurants today, McDonald's Corp. has changed how America eats.

The formula is more than a clever product idea such as Happy Meals or emotion-packed TV commercials.

It's what Larry Zwain, senior VP-marketing, McDonald's USA, calls brand brilliance." And it's what helped set a precedent for trendy marketing practices of late: creating a brand experience.


We have an important emotional connection to our customers," explains Mr. Zwain. Marketing isn't about just what was on TV or what's on the menu board. It's the total customer experience. The breadth of appeal McDonald's has is way beyond, luckily, what any of our competitors have."

By dint of its sheer size alone, the $36 billion company is a powerhouse.

What sets it apart from other consumer product marketers are its outlets at seemingly every American crossroads, and in more than 100 foreign countries.

Walk into a McDonald's, and you're walking into an experience created by savvy marketing and a laser-sharp focus on operations. Consumers know what to expect: clean restaurants, predictable food and something to amuse the kids.

McDonald's reinforces those expectations with the biggest media budget in the restaurant business, about $570 million in 1999.


Advertising, like the 1971 spot Clean-up," has consistently married emotional stories with messages about the actual restaurants. The commercial was engineered by Needham Harper & Steers, Chicago, the predecessor to DDB Worldwide, the chain's current lead national agency.

Launching the tune, You deserve a break today," the spot showed happy workers bursting into song and dance as they scrubbed the place clean. The effort proved a smart message for an increasingly mobile society looking for a spotless place for a quick bite.


The chain ends the century with a new crop of particularly emotional ads. One spot shows a little blind girl reading a book in Braille by herself for the first time. Her reward: Mom takes her to McDonald's for a Happy Meal.

McDonald's has managed to burnish its image despite high-profile stumbles in the mid-1990s. It will be hard to forget the Arch Deluxe fiasco, when the chain decided to target adults with a new line of sandwiches specifically marketed as not-for-kids. It also tripped up when it launched a soon-forgotten new burger for dieters called McLean Deluxe.

While these backfired, the company at the same time inked a 10-year pact with another premiere marketer, Walt Disney Co., that ensures first dibs on Disney entertainment properties.

Their consistency of product has been phenomenal, and they've had relatively few misfires on the marketing scene," says Dennis Lombardi, exec VP of restaurant consultancy Technomic.

McDonald's begins 2000 with an entirely new cooking system that is aimed at beefing up food quality.

The once-insular chain also has three brands to grow: Donatos, a pizza chain; Chipotle Mexican Grill, an upscale Mexican concept; and Boston Market, a chicken chain. McDonald's announced plans to acquire the chicken chain out of bankruptcy earlier this month.


They have become more of a risk taker," Mr. Lombardi notes. They are positioning themselves to be much more flexible and much more able to respond to opportunities in the marketplace."

Who knows? At the end of the next century pizza pies and tostadas may be just as much of McDonald's formula as burgers and fries.

In this article: