Brand Relevance: The Strategy Behind “i’m lovin’ it”

Larry LightMay 20, 202014 min

As the Global CMO of McDonald’s from 2002 to 2005 I had to find a way to get our brand back to relevance. This is the strategy that got us there.

Staying relevant, communicating this relevance in compelling ways and increasing the brand’s trust capital are essential for generating enduring profitable growth. It all comes down to a few guiding principles: stay relevant, be sensitive, innovate build trust. As people learn new habits and look to solve new problems, brands face fast-paced challenges.

2002 was a very challenging time for McDonald’s. The brand was in serious decline. McDonald’s was ailing with dismal morale among employees. McDonald’s was under attack from the media. As Fortune magazine highlighted on its cover, “The shine is off the golden arches.” McDonald’s stock price declined from the $40’s to under $15. Customers perceived the McDonald’s brand as no longer relevant. The McDonald’s brand communications lost its connection with the heart of its user base. The customer base had lost trust in the brand. And, franchisees lost confidence in the leadership.

How did McDonald’s turnaround this dismal situation? There were three key aspects of the McDonald’s turnaround. These were… financial discipline, operational excellence and leadership marketing. Leadership marketing involved addressing the brand’s lack of relevance, its out-of-date marketing approach and its serious trust deficit. One of the visible outcomes was the launch of “i’m lovin’ it” as an expression of the new brand attitude. “i’m lovin’ it” launched in 2003. 17 years later, it is still the McDonald’s slogan. It is by far the longest running McDonald’s brand slogan.

At the heart of generating effective, lasting communications are some fundamental approaches that do not go out-of-date. Here is the untold story of how we created the ground-breaking campaign that helped bring McDonald’s back to life.

First, we had to reinvent marketing at McDonald’s.

We recognized that the mass marketing of mass messages to masses of people via mass media was a mass mistake. McDonald’s had been managed as a mass-market, mass-media, mass-message brand. Our challenge was to lead as a big brand, but not as a mass brand. So, instead of continuing the uni-dimensional, one size fits all of mass marketing, we took a multi-dimensional, multi-segmented approach.

Big brands, especially mega brands like Coca-Cola, McDonald’s, Kellogg’s, GE, Samsung, Sony, HP, Marriott, IBM, Visa, and BMW, mean different things to customers at different occasions: at home, away from home, drive time, holiday time, business meeting, morning, afternoon, evening, breakfast, lunch, dinner, snack, late night, weekday, weekend, with kids, on a business trip, on a cruise, at a family gathering, or at college. McDonald’s is a big brand that addresses different people, with different desires at different occasions. It can satisfy the needs for convenience, affordability and fun for a parent with kids on Saturday at lunch. Or McDonald’s can satisfy a salesperson’s need on a business trip going through the airport prior to boarding a flight. And for a group of young adults, McDonald’s satisfies the need for something to eat late at night. Geography makes a difference, too. McDonald’s is a different experience in the exurbs of San Francisco than it is on the Champs Elyseé in Paris. Yet, it is all McDonald’s.

Bringing our brand up-to-date meant we had to abandon marketing practices and principles that were out-of-date. To do this, we rejected the, simplistic concept of “brand positioning”. The rigid singularity of positioning and monotone messaging was just not relevant for McDonald’s in a highly fractionated world. Identifying and repeating one brand message was just too old-fashioned for our brand’s communications. Positioning’s ultimate aim is to simplify a brand to a single word. From our view, this would be oversimplification of a complex brand like McDonald’s. McDonald’s could not be simplified to a single dimension, a single position nor to a single word.

Today, we are all well aware of the criticality of managing communications across various media channels to varied audiences with varied messages. But, in the early 2000’s, this reinvention of marketing communications was, among many marketers, considered anathema. We called the new approach, “Brand Journalism.”

Brand Journalism

We created and implemented the new Brand Journalism communications approach where each individual communication provides a different insight into our brand’s promised experience. No single communication could tell our whole multidimensional, multifaceted brand story. Brand Journalism allowed us to address our three distinct market segments: moms, kids and young adults with relevant messages.

Brand Journalism means telling the many facets of the brand story while staying true to the integrity of the brand. Underlying Brand Journalism is the idea that a brand is not merely a simple word; it is a complex, multidimensional idea that includes differentiating features, functional and emotional benefits, as well as a distinctive brand character. In today’s digital, app-laden, mobile marketing world, Brand Journalism is even more relevant. With the new, varied digital platforms we can relate a meaningful McDonald’s message — the right message to the right person at the right time for the right reasons. This makes Brand Journalism even more appropriate for today’s, modern media world. In 2010, summarizing the top ten ideas of the decade, Ad Age selected “Brand Journalism,” “introduced by Larry Light as arguably the most realistic description of marketing today — perhaps ever.”

 The reason we named it Brand Journalism was that the brand’s communications plan should learn from the ideas behind magazines, newspapers and journals. Regardless of brand, magazines, journals, newspapers, e-zines, blogs, vlogs and so on each has an overarching brand idea that defines its common brand character. This brand character is what differentiates each magazine, providing a coherent, integrated vision for its brand. However, each magazine covers a variety of topics that interest a variety of people. The editors do not expect every reader to read every article. Different people with different interests will read different articles. And, at different times in their lives, as people’s interests change, they will be interested in reading different articles. Only a few people will be interested in every article in every edition. But still, the magazine has its thematic brand character as its guiding North Star.

Nine years later, in 2012, a contributor for Forbes wrote the following:

“Brand Journalism is not only shaking up traditional views of brand management, it is also shaking up traditional views of journalism. Brand Journalism is evolving into content creation using journalistic skills: it is redefining what news is and how it should be communicated on behalf of a brand.

“Brand Journalism marries brand management and journalistic storytelling. It takes both skill sets and merges them into an energetic communications platform. In our changed marketing environment, marketers need to focus on creating interesting, ongoing content that will attract and interest consumers, rather than relying on old-fashioned, simplistic, repetitive message pushing.

“Brand Journalism captures and speaks to the interests of interconnected consumers who want customized, connective content. Brand Journalism can be the most valuable tool in the marketing toolbox. Marketers have the chance of a life-time to connect and engage consumers with journalistic brand storytelling that customers will want to consume. In this new era, Brand Journalism will be an increasingly important part of marketing’s future.”

Brand Journalism is even more relevant today than it was in 2003.

We had to restore brand relevance.

As McDonald’s customers grew up, many grew out of the brand. They changed while McDonald’s remained the same. We had to restore brand relevance. Many pundits and observers said we should go back to where we were. They told us that we could not change the minds of consumers. After all, McDonald’s is known for Happy Meals and PlayPlaces: that is where we should stay.

Forever Young

We had to unquo the status quo. People can and do change their minds. Standing still was not an option. We examined market research from around the world going back at least five years. Synthesizing this research, we came to understand that McDonald’s core was a series of paradoxes. McDonald’s was:

  • Familiar and modern
  • Global and local
  • Comfortable and entertaining
  • Simple and highly enjoyable
  • Consistent and changing
  • Superior quality and incredibly affordable

We saw that what made McDonald’s great was a paradox promise of youthful exuberance with strong roots: McDonald’s was forever young. Forever young is not an age; it is an attitude. This was to be the new brand attitude at the center the McDonald’s brand.

Our Brand Journalism approach was a key element in helping us to restore Forever Young relevance to our brand. A variety of music genres and communication styles followed using various media to various audiences in various ways to tell various aspects of our brand. You would no longer find a monotonous, predictable template in our brand journal.

Our messages were our own McDonald’s brand magazine where each article was different, each edition was different: different subjects, different topics, different messages, all coming together in a dynamic, interesting, ever-evolving, relevant magazine with a consistent Brand Promise as its editorial framework. As brand leaders, we were editors of our special brand magazine. They all added up to a dynamic McDonald’s brand story. Brand Journalism underpinned the marketing of our multi-dimensional, multi-faceted, complex brand messages in a way that connected with our three target audiences restoring brand relevance

Ideas From Everywhere

Good ideas do not care where they come from. This was an underlying principle behind the creation of the “i’m lovin it” campaign. One of the great strengths of a global organization is that there is an extraordinary diversity of creative talent. It is the scale and scope of a large global enterprise that provides an enormous variety of talent on which it can draw.

But, in many global enterprises, great talent is often hidden from view. In many cases, marketers may preach, “Think global. Act local.” But, in the case of US-based companies they often really mean, “Think USA. Do as I say.” McDonald’s was no exception. Our goal was to ditch this US-centric approach and open up the competition for the new McDonald’s communications ideas to all our agencies around the world. We were determined to leverage the power of ideas. We also were determined to break down the barriers to creativity.

We received a variety of excellent creative ideas. We adopted restaurant designs developed in France. McCafé came from Australia. Our packaging change came from Birmingham, England. Nothing promotes alignment within an organization more than seeing ideas and creativity from countries other than the home-base country used around the world. The foundational theme of “i’m lovin it” came from a small agency in Unterhaching, Germany.

The “I voice”

Having the right messages around the right brand promise was great. What we communicate is important. How we communicate is also important. The tone and style of our communications had to be relevant. Previous McDonald’s campaigns always focused on the brand telling customers how to feel and what to do. Over the years, we told customers that they should take a break today; that we do it all for them; that nobody makes their day like we do at McDonald’s; that we would love to see them smile. Each of these campaigns was created in a lecturing tone telling consumers what we do for them and telling them how they should feel.

Telling isn’t selling. Our customers did not want to hear and did not want to be told what to do or how to feel. They did not want a corporation telling them how great they are and that customers should appreciate what McDonald’s does for them. Customers can think and speak for themselves. Don’t tell me I “deserve a break today.” I know I do. Why should I take my break at McDonald’s? Don’t tell me that you “love to see me smile.” Why should I smile when the food is not what I desire, the restaurant is not clean, the service is slow? Don’t tell me you “do it all for me.” I don’t believe you. You asked, “Did somebody say McDonald’s?” I don’t know. But, it was definitely not me.

Clearly, we had to change the way in which we spoke to our customers. The traditional voice of McDonald’s might have been. “McDonald’s. You will love it.” This is wrong.  We called the new McDonald’s tone, the “I voice.”  Instead of telling customers how to feel, we let them tell us how they feel. The “I voice” let customers express what they like about McDonald’s. The “I” voice expressed how McDonald’s fit into their daily lives. The expression “i’m lovin’ it” said that it did not matter how old I am, there are things that I love about life and I enjoy having McDonald’s in my life. The appeal of  “i’m lovin’ it” spoke to the simple pleasures of everyday living in which McDonald’s had a role to play. It reminded everyone that McDonald’s was part of their lives and their culture and that McDonald’s overall experience was one of warmth and a real slice of everyday life.

To further increase the impact of our multidimensional brand journalism I voice campaign we added a multi-sensory executional approach. We intended to register our identity through a verbal dimension, “i’m lovin’ it,” symbolic dimension, our golden arch icon, and an aural dimension, the five notes “ba da ba pa pa.” This unique combination of sound, graphic and words has endured for 17 years.

We had to rebuild trust.

Customers are more knowledgeable, more demanding, more quality conscious, more value conscious. They are also more skeptical, more questioning and less trusting. We knew that our customers had to trust our messages as well as trust our brand as the messenger. Our goal was to be more than a trademark; it was to become a trustmark. We recognized that our brand value hinged on the degree to which our customers trusted our brand proposition. Trustmarks cannot be bought; they must be earned.

Our decision was to earn back our customers’ trust through a disciplined five-step trust-building approach.

You Are What You Do

We realized that to deserve trust, we had to demonstrate trust. We knew that saying, “trust me” would not fly with our customer base. We knew that we had to create a pattern of credible behavior. We disbanded super sizes and we created a new day dedicated to the wellbeing of children, World Children’s Day, raising millions of dollars for children’s charities.

Lead the debate; do not hide from it. As with today, in the early 2000’s the fast food industry was a major target in ongoing global health debates.

We could have stayed silent. But, silence means agreement. We could have aggressively gone on the defensive. But, going on the defensive was the wrong approach if we were to be taken seriously in our efforts. The imperative was to stand up for what we stood for.

Trust leadership means more than just standing out. It means speaking out against those who aim to trounce your trust. We asked our countries to create visible programs that would tell our story on health and wellness.

Additionally, rather than focusing on marketing to children which was and still is, a convenient political target, we decided to focus on childhood obesity as the real target.  Instead of less marketing to children, we should have more marketing to children: more responsive and responsible marketing to children was what we needed now in order to deliver the obesity message.

Openness Is An Opportunity

Transparency is key to trust. Transparency requires truth. But, truth and trust are not the same. Truth is a fact. Trust is a feeling. People trust their eyes more than their ears. So, to be worthy of a customer’s trust, people need to see the truth, not just read about it. Being open and transparent was very important in our trust-building efforts.

The “Open Doors” program, developed in France, was a great example of transparency.  We opened our doors to children, teachers, and parents so they could visit McDonald’s and our suppliers for a behind the scenes view. They would learn about our food, how it is delivered, how it is prepared and how it is served. We expanded this program to other countries.

Be a trustworthy source of trustworthy messages. When your brand lacks trust, having a respected third party deliver your messages can turn around people’s perceptions. At McDonald’s we created an advisory board of well-respected experts, doctors, nutritionists and others who could advise on childhood obesity.

Be A Good Global Citizen

Doing the right thing is the right thing to do. Ray Kroc taught us that doing the right thing is good for business. Trust does not come from how big you are. It is a result of how big you act.

In the 2000s, McDonald’s was among the leading villains when it came to environmental issues. To demonstrate that our environmental actions, we partnered with Conservation International and several suppliers to develop a set of guidelines for prioritizing responsibility in agriculture and food systems covering social, environmental and animal welfare issues. Four years later, we won awards for environmental responsibility.

We were industry leaders in reducing packaging and boosting the use of recycled content. We pursued a fish sourcing approach to develop environmental guidelines as part of our global fish strategy. We committed to not purchasing beef from the rain forests or recently deforested rain forest areas. And, even though our food and toy safety policies were the highest in the world, we raised our specifications even further.

Campaigns become compelling when they connect with customers in highly relevant ways. But, campaigns must also be marketed in trustworthy ways. Just as customers change behaviors and perceptions, marketing also changes as people receive and send messages differently as times change.

The actions we took in creating “i’m lovin it” were not just creative actions. We changed how we approached marketing and we focused on rebuilding trust with corporate programs that touched customers.

Today, marketers are doubly challenged as they not only face a fast-paced technological tsunami of multiple media platforms, devices and direct-to-consumer brands, marketers also must find the most relevant positions and messages during a highly sensitive crisis. In the end, by reinventing how you market, by restoring relevance and by rebuilding trust, marketers will be able to keep brands revitalized regardless of what life throws at them.

Our continuing brand journal theme was “i’m lovin’ it.” It launched in September 2003 along with our distinctive five-note signature sound. By communicating our brand story in a contemporary Brand Journalistic manner, McDonald’s went from getting the cold shoulder to becoming suddenly cool. According to tracking research. There was a quick positive response to the revitalized, re-energized McDonald’s brand. Attitudes turned around quickly. The declining sales trend reversed. Employee and franchisee morale turned positive. Three years after the launch of “i’m lovin’ it” the share price went from a low of $13 to $45.” Today, the stock is trading around $175, down from a high over $215 before the Covid crisis.

These core ideas and many more can be found in my book Six Rules for Brand Revitalization.

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