In The Founder, the upcoming film about the origins of the McDonald's global empire, traveling-salesman-turned-fast-food-magnate Ray Kroc (played by Michael Keaton) comes off as both visionary and villain. The word "Faustian" appears repeatedly in movie reviews to describe the character that built a franchising juggernaut from a modest fast-food shack in San Bernardino, Calif. But first he had to wrest control of the company and its parabolic arches from brothers Dick and Mac McDonald.
If there is a hero in the film, it's the burgers. (Best not to view on an empty stomach.) The biopic, based on the book of the same name and opening nationwide on Jan. 20, covers pivotal moments in the company's mid-century history. Adweek picked a handful of more recent developments that show some challenges, changes and successes at the 14,000-restaurant chain, including promises this year from CEO Steve Easterbrook for a simpler menu and faster service, kind of like in the old days. The actual founders would be proud.
New year, new voice
After 35 years with Publicis and Leo Burnett, McDonald's switched its massive ad account ($820 million spent in 2015, according to Kantar Media) to rival Omnicom in August. The two are joining forces to create Unlimited, based in Chicago, and staffing it with some 200 "brand practitioners" dedicated to all aspects of McDonald's marketing. McD's CMO Deborah Wahl has referred to it as an "agency of the present," operational as of Jan. 1. "The industry is struggling, and everyone's looking for ways to drive business," said Bonnie Riggs, restaurant industry analyst at NPD. "It was probably time for a change."
All McGriddles, all the time
The company was in a rut and sales had been stagnant for two straight years when McD introduced all-day breakfast in October 2015. Ads from Leo Burnett treated it like a national event, lifting social media comments from consumers who were thrilled at the prospect of ordering Egg McMuffins around the clock. "People had always been frustrated that they couldn't get breakfast past 10:30," Riggs said. "And breakfast has been the only growth area for restaurants since the recession." Put those two together and it added up to a major win. The chain's fourth quarter comparable U.S. sales jumped 5.7 percent due largely to the move, and its shares hit a record high in May. Riggs predicts an ongoing commitment to all-day breakfast and, likely, an expansion of the buttery offerings.
Launching a premium coffee line in the midst of a recession in 2009 might've seemed like a poor choice, but McCafé put McDonald's on the map with whip-cream-topped espresso drinks and boosted its bottom line. It also helped the chain compete with Starbucks and other fast feeders like Dunkin' Donuts that were already percolating fresh brews. "It really mainstreamed gourmet coffee," said Darren Tristano, president, Technomic, "and it upped their game." Fancy seasonal beverages like pumpkin lattes and peppermint mochas, playing the role of comfort food in a cup, are still going strong.
Though it's grown into a $4 billion business, the chain recently announced it will retool and relaunch McCafe in 2017, with upgraded equipment, more special promotions and seasonal drinks and amped up marketing.
Critics and health advocates had already attacked McD for its calories, salt and sugar-heavy food in the early 2000s. Then came Morgan Spurlock's Super Size Me in 2004. Within months, the chain dropped its super-sized 610-calorie servings of fries and 42-ounce sodas. The company called the documentary "a super-sized distortion of the quality, choice and variety" available at the restaurant, saying it had no impact on the menu changes, which also included new options like apple slices in kids' Happy Meals. But it was an opening salvo in the brand's attempt to distance itself, at least outwardly, from the fast-food heavy user and the gluttonous portions they loved.
Technical to personal and back again
Dick and Mac McDonald did painstaking time-and-motion studies in the late 1940s to come up with the "Speedy System," an "assembly-line style" way of churning out food, said Tristano. "The process was engineered." In the late '90s, execs tossed that aside in favor of costly kitchen overhauls and the "Made for You" program. "Make it fast" became "make it custom" as McD tried to improve the taste and quality of its food and catch up to fast-casual joints and competitors like Burger King with its long-standing "Have it your way" mantra. Next up: self-serve kiosks where customers can personalize their orders, no human contact required.
This story first appeared in the December 12, 2016 issue of Adweek magazine.