Top executives from McDonald's Corp. and its kids' agency Leo Burnett USA, Chicago, last month convened the first Camp Ronald, a meeting of the minds to determine how to take the 36-year-old brand icon into the next century.
Cheryl Berman, vice chairman-chief creative officer at Burnett and an attendee, said Camp Ronald reflects the chain's commitment to protecting its brand equities.
"There's a commitment to Ronald," said Ms. Berman. "It was really good for everybody to reignite the power of this icon."
Other campers, along with Ms. Berman, included the chain's VP-Advertising Roy Bergold Jr.; Larry Zwain, senior VP-U.S. marketing; and R.J. Milano, VP-U.S. marketing.
NO RADICAL CHANGES
A company spokesman declined to provide specifics, and said there are no plans for radical changes.
But McDonald's clearly believes Ronald can be extended beyond his current usage in TV spots aimed at kids and personal appearances at events, school programs and restaurant openings. He also serves as ambassador for Ronald McDonald House Charities.
Already, he's been given his own home video series, created by Klasky Csupo, the animation studio responsible for "The Simpsons" and "Rugrats." That series, selling for $3.49 per tape, has become an unexpected hit, according to an executive with a McDonald's franchise, who said three new episodes are planned for next year.
"It made me realize how popular Ronald is," he said.
Ronald also stars in his own Internet site (www.Ronald.com), expected to be up by yearend.
Even so, the world's largest restaurant company believes its spokescharacter can do more, from appearing on licensed products such as stationery to participating in high-profile public relations stunts such as delivering Happy Meals to the United Nations.
'INSEPARABLE FROM THE BRAND'
The red-headed McDonald's clown is recognized by a whopping 96% of U.S. children, according to the company, and is "inseparable from the McDonald's brand," the spokesman said.
Ms. Berman noted there's particular sensitivity to keeping Ronald out of a salesman role.
"We have to make sure he doesn't become a shill," she said. She said there are no signs that Ronald McDonald's recognition is slipping, but it makes sense to pay attention to him.
"We've got something we don't want to lose," she said.
NOT BOUND FOR ADULT TV
Ms. Berman, however, said that Ronald won't show up in adult commercials any time soon, as he did in 1996 when he exhibited adult-like behavior for the ill-fated Arch Deluxe line.
"It was like he deserted kids," Ms. Berman said of that campaign, created by its then-McDonald's rival, Fallon McElligott, Minneapolis. "People don't know how important he is to kids, and that he is one of their first contacts on TV."
Max Cooper, a longtime franchisee who also ran a McDonald's PR agency in the late 1950s, said Ronald has an enduring power.
"Ronald is like Santa Claus . . . kids grow out of Ronald, but then a new generation comes along that grows into him. He's always new to the tiniest tot."
One thing under discussion is how to make Ronald more contemporary, such as changing his signature red, size 141/2 clown shoes, a direction applauded by Kevin Keller, a marketing professor at Dartmouth University's Tuck School of Management.
"You have to very proactively manage brand symbols and icons," he said. "It's a