McDonald's Makes Its Staff the Stars in Singing Competition

Chain to Turn Third 'Idol'-Style Contest Into Huge Social-Media and Marketing Effort With Ad Dollars

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CHICAGO ( -- McDonald's is upping the ante in its social-media push by letting its 1.6 million restaurant crew members speak -- and sing -- for them.

CAST YOUR VOTE: Will your local server be the next 'Voice of McDonald's'?
CAST YOUR VOTE: Will your local server be the next 'Voice of McDonald's'?
The chain is holding its third "Voice of McDonald's" competition, an "American Idol"-style karaoke contest complete with bright lights, a massive stage and a global media conglomerate. But this time, they're adding marketing savvy and advertising dollars.

"I've always felt that our employees are our biggest assets," said Dean Barrett, senior VP-global marketing, McDonald's. "So to allow our employees to have the fun and excitement and to have talent come through a unique and different way has been a lot of fun for me and McDonald's."

It's also another good example of a marketer working to own some of its own media presence. McDonald's initially launched the contest as a fun, internal activity for crew members leading up to its biennial global conference -- but participation and enthusiasm for the contest has ballooned since its inception.

The first performance from finalists in 2006 was such an event that CEO Jim Skinner asked to lead in, rather than follow, the performances at the 2008 convention. The 2008 contest also allowed consumers to vote on semifinalists, and McDonald's got 46,000 of them. Since then, McDonald's has learned more about social media and increased its presence on Facebook and Twitter, among other sites, in the U.S. Not surprisingly, consumer participation is expected to skyrocket this time.

This year McDonald's is pulling all of its social-media levers, creating one campaign that includes a dedicated microsite and presences on Facebook in the U.S., Bebo in the U.K., and Hi5 in Latin America. There's also a toolkit for regional marketing teams to develop their own versions of the campaign for Orkut and Vkontakte, a popular social-networking site in Russia.

Leaning on owned media
For the third contest, which culminates next April, McDonald's called for submissions last spring and combed through more than 10,000 entries to choose 30 semifinalists by October. They're releasing company-sponsored, production-quality videos for each performer this week, along with extensive biographical information and the ability to vote on which 12 semifinalists will appear at the global conference next April. On the first day, three finalists will be chosen to close out the festivities at the week's end, with one winner taking home $25,000.

McDonald's CEO Jim Skinner
McDonald's CEO Jim Skinner
McDonald's is leaning hard on owned media, from its consumer and internal crew websites to its restaurants. They're also making sure that the semifinalists have as much support as possible, from the owner-operators who employ them to a dedicated human-resources person in their region, who will help them build an online presence. The chain is backing them up with marketing, including in-store displays, personalized "vote for me" cards to distribute at work and play, avatars for social media sites, e-mail signature banners and access to intellectual property like the McDonald's logo.

Regional marketing teams, following guidelines from Oak Brook, are holding their own events, such as dedicated voting days at their restaurants, where the semifinalists often perform for the guests.

At one location, Mr. Barrett said he was told, "They were having so much fun that a semifinalist was singing out the drive- thru window." She was taking customer requests. And entertainment value wasn't the only bonus. "The owner-operator told me that not only did she see a bump in sales during the timeframe of the competition, but she saw a huge increase in employee satisfaction."

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