You could call 2023 the Year of Grimace.
The McDonald’s mascot became a TikTok sensation this summer after the brand unveiled a purple milkshake to celebrate the furry blob’s birthday. Mini mock horror films of people trying out the Grimace Shake went viral. In McDonald’s July earnings call, CEO Chris Kempczinski partly attributed the 10.3% quarterly rise in U.S. sales to the Grimace effect and the power of the brand’s marketing.
But McDonald’s secret sauce is more than a recipe for a brightly colored milkshake. Speaking at Brandweek in Miami on Tuesday, Jennifer “JJ” Healan, the company’s vice president of U.S. marketing, brand, content and culture, revealed that McDonald’s success came down to ignoring the haters and speaking directly to fans.
“A lot of folks had lost that loving feeling with the brand, but… We were too preoccupied with the haters. We just put them over there in the corner and let them hate away,” Healan said. “We realized we needed to tap into what people love about the brand.”
Discovering fan truths
Over the past several years, as McDonald’s has been on a mission to reignite love for the brand, that journey started with changing its tone of voice.
“We had to stop acting and talking like a corporation, and actually talk like a superfan—fan to fan,” Healan explained. “We had to listen to our fans, so we got out and talked to them.”
Now, its marketing is based on what it calls “fan truths,” or memories, moments, behaviors and rituals that people associate with McDonald’s. One might be how some people love to peel cheese off their burger wrappers, or how others gravitate towards the golden arches after a late night out.
When it came to Grimace, that campaign was based on the fan truth that “Birthdays at McDonald’s hold a certain kind of magic,” said Healan. “Back in the day, you were the cool kid when you had your birthday there. So how do we reinvent that occasion at McDonald’s in a way that fans can have a lot of fun?”
Creating future nostalgia
McDonald’s didn’t just dedicate one day to celebrating Grimace’s birth, but an entire month. The campaign by agency Wieden+Kennedy included a TV commercial showing the purple character’s birthdays through the decades, an 8-bit video game, Grimace merchandise and limited-edition products such as the milkshake.