McDonald’s had a hit on its hands when it quickly sold out of merchandise, such as umbrellas that look like sesame-seed buns and t-shirts that mimic red Happy Meal boxes. Of course, that was at a company convention, where employees, operators and suppliers gather every two years to hear what’s new at the world’s largest restaurant chain.
Those people have already drunk the brand's Kool-Aid—or, in McDonald’s case, the Coca-Cola. Brisk business at the McDonald's convention two years ago suggested to the brand’s overseers that there was untapped potential. McDonald’s knew it was onto something.
“It was this massive hit,” said Colin Mitchell, McDonald’s senior VP of global marketing.
McDonald’s, he readily admits, hasn’t leveraged the potential of its fan base. It also held its brand trademarks in such high regard that it didn’t want to tinker with them. Sure, people might have called the chain Mickey D’s or Macca's, but those aren't words McDonald’s would have put on a t-shirt to sell to customers, until now.
“With the Instagram generation, people want really distinctive merchandise and particularly they want to deploy their fandom,” said Mitchell.
Now, a golden yellow t-shirt listing the chain’s nicknames is among the items available in the U.S. through an online site, and in a pilot at a flagship restaurant in Chicago. Items cost more than a Big Mac, fries and a Coke, starting at $12 for a set of pins and rising as high as $65 for a holiday sweater. That sesame-seed bun umbrella? It’s $35.
McDonald's effort comes well after other big brands such as Coca-Cola and competing chains such as Taco Bell started selling their own merch to fans who happily show off their loyalty. Coca-Cola sells everything from ornaments to pajamas through its Coke Store site. KFC, a rival to McDonald’s in the fast-food space, even sold pillowcases emblazoned with the face of founder Colonel Sanders through its KFC Ltd. shop, which isn’t currently open online. Taco Bell refreshes its Taco Shop with items such as blankets and onesies that look like its hot sauce packets.
And, clearly, McDonald’s hopes people will share images of their items on Instagram and tell friends about them. McDonald’s has partnered with other brands and retailers since the 1980s to sell items and even gave away some with delivery orders to promote its McDelivery in recent years. But this is the biggest step the chain has taken to offer fans the chance to be walking billboards.
“We want everybody who is wearing it to be a brand ambassador,” said Mitchell.
McDonald’s took some time to get its visual identity in place globally before diving deeper into the merch pool. Its makeover process with design firm Turner Duckworth began in late 2017.
“Now we have a way of making that live and breathe in a way that fans can have, and hold, and carry,” said Mitchell.
Some of the items, such as socks and bags with McDonald's fry boxes, make it clear which brand they are there to promote. Others, such as a gray hoodie with sesame seed imagery tucked into the inside of the hood, are a bit more understated. Mitchell believes the brand’s efforts, from hair ties to socks to notebooks, don't come across as ironic or kitschy. He sees them as designs that, he hopes, people are proud enough to wear, collect and give as gifts—hence, the timing of the site opening weeks before Christmas.
“We know people will pay for this and we have more pent up demand than we can meet. The question is just how big it will be,” said Mitchell.
And to help spread the word, it’s giving some merch to influencers and others it knows are big fans of the brand.
The online shop is called Golden Arches Unlimited. The name brings to mind We Are Unlimited, the DDB shop created to run McDonald’s U.S. creative account and which is now handing the lead role to Wieden & Kennedy. But it’s not Unlimited’s creation. The name is a coincidence. Agencies working on the project included Turner Duckworth, Bamko, The Marketing Store and Golin.
Some of the items are being sold at the updated McDonald’s at 600 N. Clark in Chicago. For now, it’s the only store in the chain getting the merch. “That’s something we hope to scale,” said Mitchell.