Exclusive: McD's Light urges brand reinvention

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As McDonald's Corp. publicly plays out its midlife crisis, its marketing and advertising teams are exploring ways to demonstrate that the brand pushing 50 is "forever young."

The concept started as the rallying cry of a speech made by Global Chief Marketing Officer Larry Light in a series of brand summits last month. "McDonald's is a brand that is, in the words of Bob Dylan, forever young," he said in a choked-up voice, according to one attendee summing up the speech.

"He was speaking about how to reinvent the brand and make a stronger emotional connection," said the executive. Since then, McDonald's agencies have been asked to generate ideas to use that notion in new advertising. The Golden Arches is hosting a global advertising meeting with the agencies and creative talent in its top 10 markets, where the question of how to implement the new marketing direction is expected to be discussed.

`it could be nice'

Some think the theme could work. "It could be nice, depending on what you do with it, whether it informs the mood, tone or point of view," said another executive close to the company. "It gets McDonald's back to being a brand again. The real trick is how to make it work and make it relevant to consumers."

A McDonald's spokesman wouldn't comment on the "forever young" idea, but confirmed that Mr. Light and President-Chief Operating Officer Charlie Bell would lead the February agency meeting.

In a conference call with analysts Jan. 16, Mr. Bell acknowledged a need for McDonald's to reinvent its advertising. "We need leadership advertising that sets McDonald's apart, and that has the look and feel of the best brand in the world," he said.

Just 14 days into his regime, new Chairman-CEO James Cantalupo told Wall Street that the company's business model centered on "meal occasions" isn't broken. He said the fast-feeder will get "back to basics" with a more narrow focus on restaurant execution and more relevant marketing to win back customers and eventually grow unit sales. He said innovation in research and development under a single global unit is a priority, and added that he will stick with McDonald's value strategy.

no plan to fail

"I realize we've lost some credibility with the financial community," said Mr. Cantalupo on the call. "Given today's `show me the money' environment, I accept your skepticism. But I also accept that I don't plan to fail. Under my leadership, neither failure nor second place is an option and accountability is a given."

Analysts weren't impressed. Shares closed down 5% the day of the call.

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