McDonald's challenge: winning the love back

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McDonald's revealed its "I'm lovin' it" advertising theme and agency model. But it's uncertain whether the chain can win back customers who've lost that loving feeling.

During the fast-feeder's worldwide marketing conference last week, "you could hear a pin drop" said one attendee, as Chief Global Marketing Officer Larry Light paused before introducing the winner of its global idea contest, Heye & Partner, Unterhaching, Germany, a unit of Omnicom Group's DDB Worldwide.

New commercials are set to break in September via Heye for global distribution, and in 2004 other agencies around the world will participate in creative development on local executions, said an executive fresh from the final meetings June 13.

CONSISTENCY SOUGHT

McDonald's is "looking at specific meetings between now and September," said the executive, adding, "They're going to figure a lot of this out as they go along. More guidelines are being developed, everything from musical scores to mnemonics, and they'd like to work toward a more consistent look."

While it is still uncertain what role other agencies will play in executing the theme, Publicis Groupe's Leo Burnett USA, which shares the bulk of the account with DDB, said it was on board with the new direction. "We're aligned and enthused about optimally executing [the theme] in all of our markets," said Doug Porter, exec VP-worldwide management director at Burnett, a sentiment echoed by other roster-agency executives.

Following the theme overview, attendees saw a parade of speakers, including Cheryl Berman, Burnett USA's vice chairman-chief creative officer, who as the "Mother of Ronald McDonald" outlined ideas on how to incorporate Ronald McDonald into daily restaurant activities and holidays. DDB creative consultant Jim Ferguson was said to have quipped later that he was the "Father of Ronald McDonald." Neither Leo Burnett nor DDB would comment on the meetings.

Peter Arnell, chairman of Omnicom-owned Arnell Group, spoke about his ties to the music industry, according to attendees, who said it remains unclear what his agency's role will be. McDonald's executives hinted to attendees that there would be more news soon.

WAIT AND SEE

"McDonald's new brand direction is all about creativity, relevancy and connecting to today's culture in new and exciting ways. So we are reaching out to the best and the brightest and Peter Arnell is certainly that," said a McDonald's spokesman in a statement. "He is one of the top creative resources we are talking to, but nothing is final and no one should jump to conclusions.

"McDonald's new brand creative approach has been enthusiastically embraced by our team of marketing partners around the world."

But reactions from industry observers ranged from wait-and-see to skepticism that the theme is the right direction for the brand.

"It's a bold and potentially powerful idea," said Tom Collinger, associate professor of the Integrated Marketing Communications graduate program at Northwestern University. "But it sets up an expectation that if overwhelmingly they do not deliver on, it could be devastating. The challenge is clearly to stay true and committed to the idea while allowing for interpretation on a local and regional level."

"To me McDonald's is not in search of a slogan, they're in search of a strategy," said Jack Trout, president, Trout & Partners Greenwich, Conn. "The whole exercise ... is just another in a parade of meaningless slogans."

McDonald's Chairman-CEO Jim Cantalupo promised operators in a memo announcing the new strategy that the chain will deliver on its marketing promises. "We are aligning our entire marketing force against this creative direction," he wrote. "We are on the offensive."

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