Last summer, Burger King added a new menu item to light a spark—tacos. Yes, tacos! At Burger King! It was the latest in a long line of fast food giants making splashes with new “limited-time” items (some clearly more successful than others), but 2020 has been notably devoid of these promotions. The COVID-19 pandemic put a wrench in every business’ plans, and in response to lower sales, many fast food restaurants decided to cut back on their menus. That meant no buzzy new meals, sauces, or regional ventures to get curious customers through the doors. But McDonald’s has made the biggest splash of the year in fast food, and it didn’t need to make a single change to its supply chain to do it.
In 2020, Mickey D’s focused a significant portion of its marketing efforts on “famous orders”—showing regular diners how to eat like the stars. The effort made its public debut in February, with a Super Bowl pregame ad that depicted the regular orders of Patrick Mahomes, Kim Kardashian, Joe Montana, and others.
And this fall, they doubled down on the concept. In early September, McDonald’s announced the new “Travis Scott Meal,” created in partnership with the popular rapper from Houston. But the meal wasn’t very new at all—it consisted entirely of ingredients that were already stocked in each location, with only minor modifications to existing menu items. Scott’s preferred Quarter Pounder with Cheese adds bacon and lettuce, and he dips his fries in barbecue sauce.
But although the meal mostly just looks like a normal Quarter Pounder combo, it was such a hit that some locations sold out of the necessary ingredients. Much of that is due to Scott’s star power— Morgan Flatley, McDonald’s chief marketing officer, called Scott “the definition of big in culture,” praising his social clout and youth appeal.
“His ability to kind of see where culture is going and have a hand in where culture is going is really unique,” Flatley said.
Encouraged by that meal’s success, McDonald’s is replicating its process with J Balvin, a pop artist from Colombia. His meal is even simpler than Scott’s—an unchanged Big Mac (they say J likes his without pickles, but yours will come with them unless you specify), fries with ketchup, and an Oreo McFlurry.
All this is to say that even with limited marketing options at its disposal, McDonald’s has put on a display of stupidly simple marketing mastery in 2020. McDonald’s generated immense buzz without a single change to its supply chain—or even its packaging! And that streamlined menu means easier decisions for customers, fewer stocked ingredients in kitchens, and ultimately, faster service time.
“This decision (to shrink the menu) helped simplify operations for our restaurant crew while also improving our customers’ experience,” the company said in a statement. Mickey D’s didn’t sacrifice anything to achieve those goals, because the numbers looked good, too—the meal fueled the chain to a 4.3% increase in Q3 U.S. same-store sales, exceptionally strong performance in a pandemic.
Lots of fast food brands partner with celebrities, but few have more effectively intertwined them with specific menu items—the ones they supposedly love and actually order IRL—than McDonald’s. The international brand, anchored in 118 countries around the globe, doubled down on being something that everyone enjoys, whether you’re a Colombian pop star, a New York-based graphic designer, or a farmer in Idaho. And if you’re as ubiquitous as McDonald’s, simplest is best. Hone in on what you’ve got on the menu, using celebrity spokespeople to reinforce the popularity of those meals.
McDonald’s does deserve credit for leaning into the collaboration and allowing the celebrity’s voice, style, and iconography to dominate. This results in some cringey, memeable marketing activity, but it also really helped to publicize their promotions.
McDonald’s also created limited-edition merchandise with both Scott and J Balvin—Travis Scott’s merch always sells out, and this line was no exception. In his debut commercial, J Balvin sported some eye-popping chains representing each of his meal’s menu items, and McDonald’s partnered with the NTWRK app to give away a few of them to lucky fans.
McDonald’s also seems to have similar plans for 2021, as the brand has announced more collaborations lined up through the winter. Based on the success of the Travis Scott meal, a celebrity feature could become a permanent fixture on drive-thru menu boards. With a shockingly simple premise, the biggest giant in the fast food industry might’ve revolutionized food marketing yet again.