McDonald’s marketing savvy had kept kids coming back for generations

Stacy Wescoe//November 22, 2019

McDonald’s marketing savvy had kept kids coming back for generations

Stacy Wescoe//November 22, 2019

The McDonald’s Happy Meal turns 40 this month, and the nostalgia for those “happy” memories of unboxing a toy surprise with a side of fries is the backbone of a promotion McDonald’s is running in November.

McDonald’s has an anniversary Happy Meal stocked with a surprise toy replica of some of the most popular toys of promotions past.

A Grimace posable figurine from 1990, a Warner Brothers Space Jam Bugs Bunny from 1996 and a Hasbro Furby from 1999 are among the 15 toys in the anniversary boxes.

Marcia Graham, a Pottstown-based owner of 12 McDonald’s franchises and president of the McDonald’s Pennsylvania, New Jersey and Delaware co-op, has been with McDonald’s since 1992.

She said the goal of the promotion is to get the generations talking. Mothers and fathers can talk with their kids about their own favorite Happy Meal toys and memories as they discover the toys those children are getting in this generation’s Happy Meals.

“Parents tell us how fondly they recall their favorite toys,” said Colin Mitchell, McDonald’s senior vice president of global marketing. “So, unboxing the Surprise Happy Meal together creates a real moment of bonding with their children. We hope these toys are something that they will treasure and remember.”

Not the first

The fast food behemoth wasn’t the first company to use toys and trinkets to attract children’s attention. Cereal companies did it for years.

But there was something about that combination of brightly colored, activity-covered box and the toy surprise inside and McDonald’s branding and marketing muscle that revolutionized how fast food restaurants market themselves.

And after four decades of highs and lows, the Happy Meal has held on as a symbol of McDonald’s and is almost as well-known as its golden arches or Ronald McDonald the clown.

Some marketers refer to the Happy Meal as “experiential marketing” before experiential marketing was a trend.

And, it comes with lessons that any marketer can learn from.

Business boost

Graham said McDonald’s Happy Meals have been an integral part of the business and at times have led to dramatic increases in sales.

She cited the chain coming out with Teenie Beanie Babies for their Happy Meals at the height of the Ty Beanie Baby craze in the late 1990s.

“Those were just crazy days in the restaurant. We sold an unbelievable amount,” she said.

In fact, she said the stuffed toys were her favorite of all of the Happy Meal toys that McDonald’s has put out over the years. She managed to keep some for herself as well.

The evolution of toys

Graham said before her time, in the early days of the Happy Meal, the toy surprise wasn’t all that exciting.

“It was usually something like a stencil or a spinning top,” she said. It wasn’t until the late 80s early 90s that McDonald’s began partnering with movie studios and toy brands to come up with “must-have” toys that drew in children – and adults – sometimes even more than McDonald’s food.

Graham said partnerships with Disney, which would put collectable, movie-themed toys in Happy Meals to correspond with theatrical releases were always big hits.

Also, partnerships with Mattel, Hasbro and other toy makers that would bring Barbie, Hot Wheels and My Little Pony to the Happy Meal box were also popular sellers.

Denise Ogden, professor of marketing and vice chair of the Council for Retail and Sales at Penn State Lehigh Valley, said partnering of brands was hugely beneficial to both parties and serves as an example of what can be accomplished when brands work together.

“When you’re tying a happy meal into a movie or toy promotion it increases box offices sales as well as awareness of the movie or toy brand,” she said.

Kids rule

She said part of the draw of the Happy Meal as both a product and a marketing tool is its simplicity. Taking a toy, which children will want, with food, which the child needs, with the concept that “this will make you happy” is a great motivator to drive families into the restaurant.

She said the Happy Meal drives kids to want to go to McDonald’s, who then encourage their parents to go to the restaurant, which increases sales of other food as well.

Targeting children in advertising has always been a strong method of opening parent’s wallets.

However, since the toys were tied with food like burgers and fries and soda, the tide eventually turned against the Happy Meal with parents and nutrition groups, who accused the chain of using them to encourage unhealthy diets for kids.

Dealing with criticism

The criticism could have been the death knell of the popular meal, but Ogden said the way the corporation dealt with the blowback is an example of how a company can overcome controversy and develop a better strategy.

Ogden said McDonald’s listened to the concerns of the parents and changed the product to address the health concerns without taking away what made the meals popular with kids – the toys and puzzles.

Those changes included adding sliced apples and yogurt as snacks and offering juice and milk as alternatives to soda. They were small changes that kids responded to.

When given the option of milk there was a 15-percent shift in ordering towards milk over soda, she said.

In 2020 when they introduce a lower-sugar chocolate milk to the Happy Meals, Ogden expects even less families will choose soda.

McDonalds will continue to adapt its Happy Meals and overall brand to meet changing consumer demands, she said.

“It’s an important part of the draw [the Happy Meal] has to be relevant,” Graham said.

It’s that mindset that has helped the Happy Meal last for so long.

“There’s been a lot of ups and down for the Happy Meal, but in the end it’s still around because the consumers made demands and they adapted to that,” Ogden said.