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The Three Saddest American Brands Right Now

By Published on .

Sad!
Sad! Credit: Official White House Photo by Shealah Craighead

What does it take to really, truly reimagine a brand? And which major American brands most urgently need to be reimagined? Here are my thoughts—and my (sad, pathetic) shortlist:

McDonald's

In the course of writing this column, I visited the three McDonald's within a half-mile walking distance of Media Guy HQ in downtown Manhattan. There had been four, but over the summer one shut down; right across the street from it, a Shake Shack is about to open. McDonald's and/or its franchisee apparently saw the writing on the wall in my rapidly gentrifying neighborhood.

Here's the thing about McDonald's: It used to stand for "food, folks and fun." Now it's sad and gross and feels like it's managed solely against margins, to the detriment of both employees and customers.

Based on my repeat visits to those NYC McDonald's—plus stops over the summer at McD's in Rhode Island, Massachusetts and D.C.—the chain's workers are ill-equipped to deal with corporate management's expansion of its menu to include trendy sandwiches and "crafted" coffee drinks.

Quite simply, McDonald's is trying to will itself into becoming a Panera-meets-Starbucks, but it's going about it backasswards. A McDonald's Pico Guacamole Artisan Grilled Chicken sandwich sounds good in theory, but ordering it is way too complicated (because of a surfeit of other options including something called "Signature Sriracha") and an obvious time suck on the assembly line (er, kitchen). From what I've seen, the overtaxed, underpaid employees radiate stress and unhappiness.

I'm all in favor of the menu makeover, but now McDonald's needs to invest in the humans (most working at or near minimum wage) who are tasked with preparing and selling all these theoretically upscaled options.

My suggestion: Hire a key operational exec away from Costco—a discounter known for both maintaining low prices and taking great care of its workers. Put employees first and start making going to McDonald's feel like less of a cranky clusterfuck.

Kmart

Earlier this month Kmart announced that it's changing the name of its plus-size clothing section to "Fabulously Sized." OK, fine. (Points to Kmart for trying something—unlike its corporate sibling Sears, which seems to be in an irreversible coma.) If only the clothing itself—or any of Kmart's merchandise—were fabulous.

Since Kmart's deal with Martha Stewart fell apart in 2009, there's been a vacuum of buzzworthy merch at the discounter. You know what a Kmart-exclusive fashion label is these days? Jaclyn Smith. Do you know who the hell Jaclyn Smith even is? She was famous for being one of the stars (i.e., one of the not-Farrah Fawcett ones) of the cheesy 1970s ABC crime-fighting drama "Charlie's Angels."

A newer celebrity Kmart co-venture is the Adam Levine Collection. The beanpole Maroon 5 rocker tends to wear stuff as a judge on NBC's "The Voice" that looks nothing like his namesake Kmart duds. (I checked out some tacky Adam Levine men's shirts at Kmart, and they looked to be straight out of the late, not-great International Male catalog.)

There's got to be some middle ground in the marketplace between, say, Target's Victoria Beckham collection and H&M's uber-hip collaborations, such as the upcoming H&M x Erdem. What Kmart lacks these days is not only a sense of direction but of (yes, I'll say it) authenticity. (Does Adam Levine make you think of fashion? Of course not.)

Instead of locking itself into multiyear set-it-and-forget-it deals with random celebrities, the retailer should be doing short-term capsule/curated collections with actually relevant rising Instagram and Snapchat style stars who can bring a sense of fast fashion and pop-up-shopping relevance to Kmart's game.

Trump

Yes, I'm going there—I'm grouping the once high-flying Trump "luxury" brand (for those that liked a certain sort of gaudy, gilded, ostentatious luxury) with McDonald's and Kmart. Which, of course, is rather unfair to McDonald's and Kmart (neither of which, we can presume, would ever side with white supremacists).

There are signs that within the Trump Organization itself there's an awareness of just how tarnished the brand has become. For instance, the Trump Hotels group has been working on two secondary brands—Scion and American Idea—that conspicuously omit the Trump name. And the owners of the Trump International Hotel and Tower Toronto recently paid a reported $6 million for an early exit from a long-term licensing deal so they could de-Trump and rebrand as the St. Regis Toronto.

But of course, the biggest problem with the Trump brand is the guy at the core of it—Donald Trump. Which reminds me of an old lightbulb joke. How many psychiatrists does it to take to change a lightbulb? Only one, but the lightbulb has to want to change.

The first Kmart store opened in 1962. Ray Kroc opened the first franchised McDonald's in 1955. Donald Trump was born in 1946. In other words, the oldest lightbulb in this batch—and frankly, not the brightest—is 71. Of course Trump doesn't want to change.

And so the Trump brand, circa 2017, has come to stand for nothing so much as anxiety, uncertainty ... and limbo.

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