McBrand: It's not easy being pop culture icon

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Imagine a world devoid of the Golden Arches.

In that world, the notion of large-scale restaurant franchising doesn't take off until the 1970s or later. Children walk out of fast-food joints with a considerably less functional plaything-or, owing to the absence of said plaything, they dine at a full-service restaurant or on PB&J. Quentin Tarantino and Eddie Murphy are forced to look elsewhere for their "Pulp Fiction" and "Coming to America" wink-wink-nudge-nudge fast-food allusions.

Love it or hate it, McDonald's Corp. is one of three companies, along with Coca-Cola Co. and Walt Disney Co., that can legitimately lay claim to the title of Quintessential American Brand. It's more than consumers' ability to reel off the "Two all-beef patties, special sauce, lettuce, cheese, pickles, onions on a sesame seed bun" Big Mac jingle 31 years after it first hit the airwaves; McDonald's rises to the level of pop culture phenomenon.

"When you start out in any kind of business, you never think in your wildest imagination you'll become an icon," says Max Cooper, the most senior active member in the entire McDonald's organization at 48 years and counting. Mr. Cooper, chairman of 44-store McDonald's franchisee CLP Corp. and originator of the chain's marketing department back in 1964, actually seems a little bit in awe when he discusses the hamburger stand's growth into a global behemoth: "It's a sign of home, almost like the American flag. It's bigger than anything anyone could've imagined at the outset."

BULL'S-EYE

And while pop culture status might seem to be a marketer's dream come true-a brand self-propelled without constant fretting over which ad message will resonate with consumers-the brand can also become the mass-consumer equivalent of the New York Yankees, the supposedly domineering giant with a big bull's-eye pinned to its chest.

Just look to the onset of expressions like "McJob," which are rarely used in a flattering sense. "The `Mc' before something is, in rare cases, a kind of ironic, loving stab at something," says Robert Thompson, a professor and director of Syracuse University's Center for the Study of Popular Television. "Usually, it's an insult. A `McMansion' does not refer to something of distinguished architecture, something we'll be gazing at for years to come."

Dick Adams, who worked in McDonald's corporate wing for 18 years and has since been a franchisee and a consultant, doesn't necessarily agree. Every kid, he believes, could benefit from a "McJob" of some sort. "The high school kid working at McDonald's today is the same one who was mowing lawns or delivering papers when I was growing up," he says. "It's an entry to the rest of your professional life. You learn how to work, be punctual and get along with people. I never expected any of my young people to be with us for 25 years."

For his part, McDonald's Senior VP-Global Marketing Dean Barrett adds, "On behalf of my 1.6 million partners who work for the brand, I have a `McJob' and I'm very proud of it."

REMAINING RELEVANT

If pop culture onlookers jab at McDonald's through barbs like "McJob," even the chain's most ardent critics marvel at its longstanding ability to remain relevant to generation after generation. Perhaps the central figure in this has been ad/charity/merchandising/birthday party icon Ronald McDonald (see stories on Page S-12).

A D.C. area franchise "owner came to me and said, `You ought to take him nationwide.' I told him, `That'll never work,' " recalls Mr. Cooper with a laugh. "Eventually, I took the idea to the president's office. He threw me out." His persistence paid off when, by 1965, Ronald was marching in a Macy's parade.

"I like to tell people, `I didn't create Ronald, but I was the midwife,' " Mr. Cooper quips.

Ronald and his McDonaldland cohorts have left an indelible mark on American pop culture. Ronald may have started as your average, everyday mascot, but he became the baby boomer generation's Peter Pan. In the minds of children, his presence still virtually guarantees a whoopin' fun time: Happy Meals! Toys! Playlands!

"If you lived in the middle of the country and you couldn't get to Disneyland, you could go around the block and McDonald's was a pretty good second choice," says David Urban, a professor of marketing at Virginia Commonwealth University.

McDonald's parlayed the character's ubiquity into a range of endeavors, most notably its national and local charitable efforts. Since 1974, Ronald McDonald House Charities has opened Ronald McDonald House facilities for sick children, sent a fleet of "care mobiles" on the road and awarded scholarships to thousands of students.

Mr. Barrett says McDonald's has merely attempted to perpetuate Ray Kroc's ideals of community: "You can put Ronald's face on just about anything, but when we open a Ronald McDonald House, we're out there painting the walls and planting the plants. People notice."

OBESITY ISSUES

That hasn't kept Ronald & Co. from finding themselves in the crosshairs of America's child-obesity fighters. Regardless of caloric concerns, McDonald's revolutionized the way America ate-McDonald's itself was a baby boomer facilitating the boomer lifestyle. In the 1950s, "You had the dominance of the automobile and you had more and more women going to work, so they couldn't spend 2 hours prepping a meal," Mr. Thompson says. "The forces afoot in America were inevitably going to create the McDonald's phenomenon. But McDonald's came up with the most effective model on the grandest scale."

All this is probably why when McDonald's opened its first Moscow location in 1990, the line of customers stretched four people wide and nearly a mile long. They likely wanted to know what they were missing.

McDonald's "certainly embodies a lot of what most people would consider the American dream: It rose from humble beginnings, largely on the energy of one man, to become a worldwide success," says Mr. Urban. "If there's a greater mechanism for exporting American culture around the world, I don't know what it is."

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