The Happy Meal Grows Up: McDonald's Search for 'Fan Truth'

The Happy Meal is one of those rare birds in branding, a product idea that becomes a cultural fixture. Since its launch in 1979, McDonald’s has amassed several generations of adults with warm memories of being surprised and delighted by the secret treasure in each box. That nostalgia has taken the form of adult-focused meal boxes that call back those memories and are part of a major shift in brand building at the largest QSR – toward what they call “fan truth.”

This week Jennifer “JJ” Healan, McDonald’s VP, US Marketing, Brand Content and Culture explores nostalgia marketing and the brand’s process for uncovering the deeper experiences customers have with brands. You can listen to the entire podcast at this link.



MediaPost: What is this new adult-focused meal box that calls back to Happy Meal memories? 

JJ Healan: We have started with our fan truth strategy, and that strategy actually talks about these moments, memories, rituals, behaviors that our fans have with our brand. We have found that these fan truths unlock something that people love about our brand. Whether it's about products such as those moments when for example, when you get an Egg McMuffin, and you've got cheese stuck on the wrapper. There's something that's great that you don't want to leave that cheese stuck there; you're going to eat every morsel. Or if you're a pickle lover or you're a pickle hater, you can actually be friends. Fan truths also lead to experiences that people have had with the brand. 

The Artist Residency Platform is a great example of that. It started with a tweet that happened back in November 2020, which was one day you ordered the happy meal for the very last time, and you didn't even know it. That was a very highly engaged tweet. We said, you know what, there's something in that. There's some truth, a fan truth, about that experience of unlocking the childhood joy that you had when you experienced a happy meal.

And so that led to last year to the Cactus Flea Market box. What was so special about that is Cynthia Lou, who is the designer behind Cactus Flea Market. She was so excited to reminisce about the memories that she had with her friends going through the drive-thru that led to all of our four characters. And so, as we thought about the evolution of that idea, and partnering with Kerwin Frost. Kerwin has his own great memory of the happy meal experience. His most favorite happy meal toy was McNuggets Buddy. He wanted to collect them all. That experience inspired now what has become the Kerwin Frost Box. We launched December 11th. We have created in partnership with Kerwin, six buddies. He loved this idea of self-expression and individualism and bringing these different buddies to life within the box experience.

MP: About this fan truth idea. How does a marketer systematize that within McDonald’s? How do you come up with some sort of research protocol or focus group protocol and know the right questions to ask and plumb that in a repeatable way?

Healan: What is special about McDonald’s is the fan truths about our brand are infinite. Because, as I mentioned, they are memories, moments, rituals, and behaviors that have been created in the past. But they're also happening every single day, and new memories are being created. Fan truth started a few years ago as our creative strategy. It is now our brand strategy. A fan truth starts and begins every single idea, and it is actually at the center of all that we do. 

The other thing that has been a great unlock for us that you've seen and feel in the work is our brand voice. And so, as we unlock all of these fan truths, again, they can be about products or experiences, our brand voice goes hand in hand. Speaking from a fan’s perspective versus the corporation - that has been the biggest pivot that we have had as we think about what we have driven over the last couple of years, as we continue to be on this journey to make McDonald’s a cultural icon.

MP: What you're talking about is a very different approach to traditional QSR marketing. Product qualities, LTO’s, menu varieties: those are the things that have tended to drive QSR marketing. and still do. You're talking about a substantial change at McDonald’s. Where did it start and how is it being implemented around the organization?

Healan: So, at McDonald’s we have a renewed focus on committing to the core because we have such a strong presence and fandom in our core menu. We just found as we pivot to celebrating the core, it's important that we reintroduce it in different ways, and those have been through platform ideas, and I think it is a different way of thinking about marketing overall.

We think about our calendar that we go across the entire year horizontally, like how do you think about brand stories that build off each other as you go through the year versus thinking about things vertically. We are no longer at McDonald’s chasing short term limited time offer products. We're actually building the core. And we may have some line extensions within core, but it is proven to continue to hit our core menu but do it in a different way. Such as Famous Orders. What's great about one of our most iconic ideas and parts of the brand is the Happy Meal. How do you then reinvent that and hold on to what people loved so much when they were younger, but you do it for adults? Again, thinking about just platform ideation. That's what's important because that builds muscle memory for our fans. And muscle memory is so important as people come back to the brand again and again, and they find something new. And as marketers, it is our job to continue to reinvent the brands that people love so much, and as we are 68-ish years old making sure you've got ideas that can help reimagine, reignite, and have people do a double take. 

MP: Let's then talk about execution and how these ideas are activated. Is a different brand concept like that activated differently in terms of the media you use, the platforms you use, the various types of channels that you leverage? 

Healan: Ideas drive our go-to-market plan. Thinking about where are the places and spaces where you need to be, the idea actually helps to drive that. For example, let's get back to the current Frost Box as we've just launched that on Monday. Knowing how important this idea was to connect with Gen Z, our go to market plan has partners and also channels that truly resonate with the Gen Z audience. And so again, as I mentioned part of our strategy is living in our fans’ creative universe. Platforms like Snapchat are front and center for us. We have an AR lens that we are using where, as you buy the box, you can have this fun but interacting with the different bottoms and tops of the buddies through a lens. In the gaming space, we’re partnering with IGN. And being in that space, thinking about the sense of self-expression, individuality, which our different buddies represent, the partnership with IGN is great because we have a content takeover. The buddies based on their personalities can interact with the gamers and make recommendations based on their personality. And so that's something that is unique to this idea, and it's also a way to connect with Gen Z. So, ideas should drive where you show up.

MP: Part of this also you're not only in terms of brand direction giving more control to fans, but even on the creative side. You're giving more control over to fans. How does that work internally at such a legacy mega-brand with so much at stake? 

Healan: At McDonald’s we talk about this phrase, which is “Sharing the Pen.” And what has been magical about sharing the pen with our fans and our partners is they are brand fans themselves, and so they make the brand their own. And that is a new way to kind of think about your brand, and how you grow your brand because the brand is theirs, after all.

We have seen this come through in such a powerful way in fan art. With each campaign, as you go through social media, you will see how people have made the brand their own in so many different ways, even starting with the Travis Scott meal. It was amazing just to see all the different articulations of the Travis Scott meal itself, their connection to Travis, their connection to the brand. We're seeing that today with the Kerwin Frost box and the fan art that we've already seen about the nugget buddies and people's interpretation of Darla and Brick, and the new introduction of the Buddy Collection. When we did the BTS meal, it was so interesting to see our BTS design packaging became tactile pieces of art or fashion, like people would take the sauce lids and sauce containers, clean them out, dry them, and make earrings out of them. 

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