Has Time Run Out for McDonald's Brand Chronicle After 10 Years?

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Has the brand-chronicle concept, as employed by McDonald's, outlived its usefulness?

In 2003, Larry Light, then the CMO at McDonald's, introduced the brand-chronicle idea in the form of "I'm lovin' it." Its job was to tell many different stories in many different ways. Larry's thinking was that no one message can convey everything about the brand, so the brand statement shouldn't even try to sum up what the brand stands for.

Larry said at the time that "a brand is multidimensional. No one communication, no one message, can tell the whole story." This kind of thinking, as you'd imagine, was anathema to the "positionistas," as Larry called them, and Chief Positionista Al Ries said then that Larry was "turning back the clock, not winding it forward. In the good old days, every brand tried to appeal to everybody. Even if everything Larry Light says about McDonald's is correct, I would hate to see other companies that have strong competitors adopt similar strategies. Companies that appeal to everybody wind up appealing to nobody," Al said.

The everybody trap
What made McDonald's a special case that justified the brand-chronicle treatment was its vast customer base and product lineup. Because it provides a different brand experience to its varied constituency -- kids, teenagers, adults, employees -- and serves so many different items, from burgers to sliced apples, multiple messages under one brand statement might be appropriate. But the question remained: If other marketers without such a broad reach and product offering employed the same tactics, would they become ensnared in the "everybody" trap?

McDonald's this spring was inducted into the Advertising Hall of Fame for its memorable advertising over the years ("You deserve a break today," "Nothing but net") and I talked with Neil Golden, who was CMO of McDonald's USA at the time but is leaving early next year, about its ad strategy.

'I'm lovin' it' was intended to tell many stories many ways.
'I'm lovin' it' was intended to tell many stories many ways.

Here's what he said about "I'm lovin' it": "What we created with that was the idea that one idea of love and all the different reasons why consumers love the brand was able to come to life, whether it was taking a child to the restaurant and having a special moment with your child, whether it was stretching your dollar on something like the dollar menu, or whether it's just celebrating after a baseball game.

"The idea of 'I'm lovin' it' comes across in so many different ways and we believe that's the link that holds the whole McDonald's brand story together," Neil told me.

"The idea of how we welcome everybody to the restaurant is inherent with the brand. You invite and make everybody feel so welcome when they come into the brand, whether you're wealthy, whether you don't have a lot of money. We very much want people to feel the special McDonald's experience, and I think 'I'm lovin' it' helped to capture some of that."

I asked Neil if one of McDonald's most-popular taglines, "You deserve a break today," would work in today's environment (its creator, Keith Reinhard, doesn't think so, by the way).

He would have none of it. "The idea is as timeless as when it ran many, many years ago, but today we've got a fantastic expression for the brand and that's the campaign we continue to see tremendous possibilities for into the future."

Firm convictions
The brand-chronicle strategy, I submit, has not had a positive effect on advertising. It lacks discipline. How do you know if your advertising is on strategy if there is no strategy? I get it: There's no one reason to go to McDonald's. But will I be tempted to go to another brand with firmer convictions?

Burger King, "Where taste is King," seems to know what it stands for these days. Not only is it stealing some of McDonald's items, like McRib and the Big Mac, but it has co-opted Wendy's strategy of offering the best-tasting fare.

Wendy's, for its part, seems to have adopted the brand-chronicle concept. Does "Now that's better" mean that all your experiences at the fast-food chain are better and more satisfying -- or does it mean that the food wasn't so good to start with?

'Brand suicide'
The best slogans, I continue to believe, promise something very concrete -- "Go like a pro" for National Car Rental; "Win from within" for Gatorade; "If it matters to you, it matters to us" for Southwest Airlines.
The prize for the stupidest slogan, promising absolutely nothing but a big dose of weirdness, goes to Bud Light's "It's only weird if it doesn't work."

Larry Light, when he introduced his brand-chronicle concept, said that identifying one brand position and communicating it in a repetitive manner is "old-fashioned, out-of-date brand communication. Simplifying a brand to a single position is not simplification, it is simplistic. Simplistic marketing is brand suicide."
The crux of the matter, of course, is whether "multifaceted, multisegmented, many-sided" messages can continue to differentiate McDonald's from its competitors.

Al points out that In-N-Out Burger on the West Coast has just four food items on its menu -- hamburgers, cheeseburgers, double-double and french fries. Yet its per-unit sales are close to McDonald's, which recently admitted it had introduced too many new items at the same time (making some of its servers not as welcoming as they might have been).

We reported the other week that McDonald's is leaning on its agencies to step up their game as sales figures continue to lose steam. Maybe the problem is that they're feeling constrained by having too much territory to cover. It's hard to make a point when your ads are all over the map.

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