The Cannes International Advertising Festival is no stranger to pomp, ceremony and the occasional tacky stunt. But the sight of Ronald McDonald performing a comedy double-act with John Montgomery, the Leo Burnett US creative director, this year had some delegates wondering if the burger giant was one nugget short of a Happy Meal.
McDonald's was in town both for some creative inspiration and to reveal the latest generation of commercials in its "I'm lovin' it" campaign, the global marketing strategy launched ten months ago.
That the burger behemoth chose adland's creative heartland to showcase its new work struck some as ironic. While the 70s and 80s are regarded as the golden era of McDonald's advertising, the company admits its work has veered off piste in recent years. As Larry Light, the global chief marketing officer at McDonald's, concedes: "We lost relevance. The world changed, we didn't."
Light is a former brand consultant who had long stints at Bates and BBDO.
McDonald's hired him last year to "fix marketing" after it posted its first-ever loss. Research revealed the brand was seen as childish; service was slipping; its restaurants looked out of date and it was taking the brunt of the blame for the West's growing obesity problem. "This wasn't a five-year plan," Light says. "It was a case of 'let's get on with it'. There was a sense of urgency."
Light has the budget for the fire-fight - $1.2 billion a year. And the bulk of it has gone on TV.
The new "I'm lovin' it" TV ads are the fruit of Light's much-discussed "brand journalism" stance. His thinking goes like this: McDonald's means different things to different people and doesn't have one brand position.
"Brand journalism allows us to be a witness to the multifaceted aspects of a brand story," Light says.
The ads are designed to run in any of the 100-plus countries where McDonald's has restaurants, with agencies adapting them to suit local markets. Light calls it "freedom within a framework".
"Ball bag" is an attempt to win back the hearts of the most important demographic to have deserted McDonald's - young adults. The Leo Burnett US ad has run from Argentina to Germany and features men and women of all ages and colours pulling off a series of keepy-up tricks using a McDonald's bag screwed up into a ball.
"It is a massive improvement," one creative from Asia says. "It looks like it has used an ad manual to come up with it, but at least there's a creative idea there and it has realised an ad can have a sales message and be entertaining."
"Olympic effort" is McDonald's bid to build a closer relationship with mothers. The 30-second ad first ran to coincide with Mother's Day in the US and has been repurposed for the Olympics. Women at various stages of pregnancy are featured in a celebration of motherhood. The endline reads: "The original Olympian effort."
McDonald's has kept faith with its 39-year-old brand mascot to reach children in a series of 15-second spots for the Olympics. "Hangin' with Ronald" is a 60-second commercial showing McDonald's "chief happiness officer" larking around with children.
But is an improved campaign enough? While the individual ads are a marked improvement, some point to a weakness in the central idea, and the clear shift away from the traditional McDonald's brand positioning: children.
"'I'm lovin' it' is McDonald's saying: 'No matter what people think, we're going to carry on making unhealthy food.' It is arrogance and the advertising smacks of flat denial," Mat Shore, an FMCG specialist at the brand consultancy FutureBrand, says.
Like them or loathe them, the ads are doing their job. Awareness of "I'm lovin' it" in McDonald's top ten countries is 86 per cent; 89 per cent with young adults and 87 per cent among "moms" - no doubt aided by a menu with healthier options. Comparable second-quarter global sales are up 7.8 per cent, the biggest Q2 jump since 1987.
Light could not be more upbeat. He talks of the McDonald's employees ("our biggest asset") applauding him and asking for his autograph when he walks into restaurants. "They weren't buying into our advertising. Now they're proud," he says.
And McDonald's isn't ignoring other media in its battle to win the hearts, minds and stomachs of a new generation. Light says the company is looking at new ways to reach elusive young audiences. "We appreciate traditional media isn't doing as well any more," he says. Primetime TV spending will drop to one-third of the budget. In its place, newspapers, radio, online and in-store will benefit.
Light talks excitedly of media innovations. McDonald's bought the largest billboard in France for the Salads Plus launch and spray-painted trains in Hong Kong with "I'm lovin' it" graffiti. "We're not doing new media," he says. "We are just rediscovering how to do old media in new ways."