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Case: Say cheese(burger); can McDonald’s claim a smile as a brand asset?

Although the campaign is not shown on TV in the Netherlands, the whole of Marketing land applauded McDonald’s latest international campaign in January ‘23. And that while it clearly breaks with widely supported conventions from the trade: there is no product to be seen, the slogan is missing at the end and there is not even (a form of) ‘Ba da ba ba ba’ to be heard. Still, System1 found that 98% of respondents recognized the brand by the end of the commercial. The researchers also saw that the happiness emotion only increased during the commercial. Cannes, here we come!

Not much later, Dutch commuters were treated to a striking bus shelter. The bus shelters showed a big smile, in combination with a prize. Again, no product, no slogan, just the yellow M in the bottom right corner. Applause seemed to give way to confusion: Say cheese(burger)? A nose ring for €1.95? Dennis Baars, creative director of TBWA\Neboko, gave us the answer to Advorm: ‘Just look at the effect that the poles with the yellow M next to the highway have on people. We also try to capture the smile that appears in this execution, by linking it to the price. The image is so strong that no product or explanation is needed anymore.”

It was the last sentence that raised our eyebrows at Validators (pun intended). The power of outdoor advertising is of course undeniable, and McDonald’s fame is huge, but does this also mean that a smile and a price are enough for a consumer? To find out, we presented three versions of the latest McDonald’s campaign to Dutch consumers in the past week: the bus shelter described above, but also a version in which the logo has been removed and a version in which the message is written out, but the logo is absent. is. Time to find out if the image is so strong that it speaks for itself.

Logo so strong that a product is no longer necessary
First, the question of whether a product is necessary. Placing the yellow M ensures that 7 out of 10 Dutch people (71%) spontaneously recognize McDonald’s (even 93% helped). The bus shelter with Spicy McNuggets but without a logo is remembered correctly by 51% (71% helped). This clearly shows that McDonald’s benefits from a logo. But also, that the logo is immediately so strong that a product is not necessarily necessary. That alone is worth mentioning and proves even more that our association network with brands is made up of so much more than what the brand wants you to buy.

From left to right: Abri 1: Smile with sender, Abri 2: Product without sender, Abri 3: Smile without sender.

Only 9% of the Dutch understand the message
So far just as good as the international commercial. But an explanation? Based on the bus shelter alone, this seems to be highly desirable. Only 9% know after exposure that the (small) prices of McDonald’s bring a smile. The same message is played back by 20% after seeing a bus shelter with a written message. McDonald’s is taking a risk if it does not communicate a literal message. The group of respondents who only saw a price and a smile (so no logo) found it even more difficult to make the connection between price and smile (<4%). The logo itself is therefore a strong hygiene factor, but even a major player such as McDonald’s must be careful that creative freedom does not overshadow the final message.
“The logo itself is therefore a strong hygiene factor, but even a major player such as McDonald’s must be careful that creative freedom does not overshadow the final message.”
More channels needed to link smiles and low prices
For the conclusion we make another trip overseas. What makes the British commercial very strong is that even without the obvious branding, very subtle references are made to McDonald’s. Could it be a coincidence that the woman is wearing a yellow-red outfit in the first seconds? In addition, the ‘eyebrow arch’ is a translation of the yellow M and System1 shows that the shape is already enough for many people to load their association network with McDonald’s. Because the ‘grand prize’ is not directly linked to McDonald’s, it is not immediately understandable to a random passer-by without an accompanying message. So, we cannot yet speak of a brand asset. It is therefore logical (and sensible) that McDonald’s now uses several channels (TV, DOOH) to strengthen the connection between smile and brand in the association network. At the same time, you must ask yourself to what extent you can appropriate something as elementary as a smile. And isn’t there another brand that does everything for the smile?

Do you want to have a chat about this subject? Please feel free to give Pau a heads-up.