It's always fun listening to a senior executive in one of the world's largest corporations attempt to get with the kids. But to give credit to Larry Light, McDonald's global chief marketing officer, he has been well briefed on what's what. He enthuses about the popularity of the company's new advertising theme, Justin Timberlake's I'm Lovin' It, on MTV's TRL show as if he'd written it himself.
There's a good reason for Light's immersion into the world of hip hop.
It's been well documented that McDonald's has been losing sales throughout the developed world because its products have been linked with obesity and chronic illness. But, at least as worrying for the burger giant, it has ceased to be seen as cool among young adults.
"People increasingly see McDonald's as a children's brand," Light says.
"In research, the young adults were saying things like 'I've grown up but McDonald's hasn't grown up with me'. They've simply grown out of our brand."
That wouldn't be so bad if families were still dashing through the golden arches on a regular basis, but the burgeoning paranoia over obesity means McDonald's must plan for a drop in kiddie customers. Part of the raison d'etre of the "I'm Lovin' It" campaign is to re-engage with the twentysomethings whom McDonald's inadvertently left behind while it arranged a plethora of Disney joint promotions.
Light knows this is no easy task. "We now have three key targets - children, parents and we want to add young adults to the franchise. We have to be careful to hang on to the first two groups though, as they are our core equity. Hopefully, by making the brand more cool and aspirational to young adults, the appeal should also trickle down to children."
He spontaneously offers up Clarks shoe brand (he refers to it as "Clarks of England" in the same way you'd imagine George Bush talking about Topshop) as an example of the kind of brand repositioning he'd like to effect.
To target the young hipsters, the company has embraced a corporate re-engineering programme called "Rolling Energy". It has been designed to energise staff and bring some momentum to the business. On the marketing front, it means associating the brand with the coolest of the cool in the areas of music, fashion and sport.
Cue the signing of popsters a la Timberlake, as well as the hip production duo The Neptunes. Countering any accusations of overtly American branding, the ad was created by the DDB-owned Heye & Partner in Germany (after a competition between McDonald's three agency networks) and shot in Johannesburg with direction by the British director James Brown.
The line "I'm Lovin' It" nearly didn't make it into the ad. The working slogan was "You'll love it at McDonald's", until research showed just how much it annoyed young adults to be told what to feel or think. "We turned it around so it reflected the voice of the consumer," Light says.
The ad, featuring a rapping soundtrack and a series of brightly coloured scenes of street life, is notable in that it prominently features ethnic minorities. Light stops just short of admitting these groups are a key target, but says that one of the major advantages of the McDonald's brand is its inclusiveness. "Everyone feels welcome in our restaurants. I'd like the McDonald's brand to be seen as ageless and raceless, actually, more about fun and the feeling of youth."
Light is keen to emphasise that the corporation's foray into global advertising doesn't mean it has lost its faith in local advertising, for so long the marketing strength of the brand. Individual countries are now working on their own ads, using the "I'm Lovin' It" line in different ways.
"The majority of ads customers see will be locally produced. I refer to it as a local grade of freedom with a global brand framework. Everyone always used to use that term 'Think global, act local', but that seems to mean you don't have to think at the local level. I'd hope that we are all thinking locally before acting locally."
In France, the original Timberlake song was re-recorded by the popular local rapper Stomy Bugsy, and the endline given a subtly different twist as "C'est tout ce que j'aime" (literally - It's everything that I love).
In the UK, an ad by Leo Burnett for the new Big Tasty burger plays on latent anti-Americanism by poking gentle fun at the fact the new burger is only available here. A frightfully stiff upper lip British voiceover gives the "I'm Lovin' It" line a whole new meaning.
- Leo Burnett
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