When it comes to rebranding an iconic company, the immediate assumption comes to mind that said company is fearing becoming outdated and wants to stay relevant with a younger demographic. It certainly seems that way when you consider McDonald’s and other fast food brands continually cater to teenagers who set the persona that they eat more fast food than most adults do. Even if that needs more analysis to determine what’s true and what isn’t, the fast food industry seems to be pressing a trigger lately that they’ve never pressed before. McDonald’s and Burger King are fast food brands that have been around for generations and are suddenly shifting gears into changing their characters and slogans to supposedly better reflect their coveted demographics.
What they don’t seem to realize is that shifting gears so late like this is one of the most dangerous paths you can take in the process of rebranding. They’ve let four or five decades pass using the same slogans and characters without a single change. Now they’re taking a left turn to a point where some of their generations-long customers might not recognize them anymore.
With McDonald’s being the worst offender this month in changing the look of Ronald McDonald and now their Happy Meals, is it the work of madmen in the marketing department, or brilliance we’ll see the results of later?
The Dangers of Changing Mascots and Inventing New Ones
It isn’t out of the question to say that McDonald’s is one of the top ten most familiar brands in the world. They’ve set an entire persona that numerous generations have assimilated for decades. The McDonaldland characters alone are still readily identified and mentioned in pop culture. Perhaps the marketing department thought they could get away with changing the look of Ronald McDonald simply because the characters haven’t been used in commercials for a while. This isn’t to say they aren’t still seen elsewhere in their marketing campaigns. Those older also remember the character TV commercials with true heart.
As usual, too many marketing departments think the younger demographics are the only ones that matter in the big picture of sales. They don’t stop and realize how many older people still eat at places like McDonald’s, sometimes based strictly on having years of memories eating there. And when they’re in a mood for a burger, many still look to the Big Mac as a quick fix, if perhaps gravitating equally lately to Carl’s Jr.
At the head of it all is Ronald McDonald who also has a familiar look that everyone recognizes immediately at first sight. When everyone saw his new red blazer and other fashion changes recently, there seemed to be collective recoil at the change. The same applies to creating a new mascot to represent something else, as in “Happy”, the literal toothy big mouth representing Happy Meals.
Mind you, if the McDonaldland characters were a little bit surreal when first created, McDonald’s seems to have tapped the mind of Lewis Carroll for the Happy character. After some news that kids were scared when seeing the character (likely out of fear that Happy wants to consume you), you have to wonder if marketing departments do any public testing first before giving something a green light.
No matter if you’re national or local, a mascot that’s been around for at least several decades should never be revised without considering how much it throws off a successful formula. The same can apply to slogans.
Slogans Should Stay Timeless
Any slogan you create should be considered for timelessness from the beginning anyway. You could say that Burger King’s old “Have it Your Way” is a bit of a nod to the Me Generation of the 1970s, which might have been their mistake in not thinking ahead on being timeless. Their new change to “Be Your Way” is only a slight variation grammatically, yet enough to change the cadence of the slogan. When it comes to Burger King, their slogans have had certain cadences that sound familiar to the ear, no matter if you ignore what the slogan really means.
Burger King’s slogans have been probably uttered a billion times in their TV commercials over the last 40 years. A shortened phrase might seem to be trendy, though may prove nuanced changes are enough to throw things off for those who like the familiar.
Now we’ll have to wait a year or two to see if McDonald’s and Burger King find success with their rebranding. As I’ve written here before, however, rebranding is the most challenging business move you can make. There has to be an understanding that if your company is 50 years old, the bulk of your sales may be coming from a generation that expects familiarity rather than suddenly shifting gears. Unfortunately, that doesn’t always earn a paycheck for an overly ambitious marketing department.