Product Launch: McDonald's hoists Happy Meal sales with fresh freebies

Everything was not cheery with McDonald's Happy Meals.

Everything was not cheery with McDonald's Happy Meals.

By the summer of 2003, the iconic kids' meals were in the throes of a 15-month decline in total sales. The fast-food behemoth knew it had to generate fresh excitement in the 24-year-old offering or the slide would surely continue.

McDonald's marketing unit spent a year developing new toys for the Happy Meals - including Bratz Pack dolls, He-Man action figures, electronic handheld games from Sega, and characters from Disney-Pixar's Finding Nemo - for a summer launch.

To generate excitement about the new meal deals, McDonald's called on JSH&A for help with its Summer of Fun campaign. "They wanted to go through a PR medium," says Laura Dihel, a VP at JSH&A, which has partnered with McDonald's for 15 years on both consumer and corporate campaigns.


JSH&A wanted to reach the media first and then, through the media, reach kids.

The agency, working with McDonald's, as well as partners Disney and Sega, formed a media pitch list targeting trade and consumer media in the beats of advertising/marketing, business, kids, family, entertainment, features, and food.

Once the media was pared down for targeting, JSH&A moved toward reaching Happy Meals' key market - hungry children.


Traditionally, McDonald's had announced promotions a week before in-store launches. For the Summer of Fun campaign, however, JSH&A wanted each toy to be a hit immediately and decided McDonald's should announce the entire Happy Meal lineup for the summer, rather than one toy at a time. It was an unprecedented PR move for McDonald's, and it gave the targeted media weeks to spread the information.

Even though they were all launched together, JSH&A developed hooks for each toy. Bratz Pack dolls, for one, were touted as the hottest-selling fashion dolls in the country, and the Sega games represented the first time a handheld electronic game had been dropped inside a Happy Meal. JSH&A released these details, plus color photos, to the media, and staffers in McDonald's marketing division were made available to reporters for comment.

"It was great to build the excitement," Dihel says, "and keep the momentum going."


The results of the campaign were immediate, both in regards to the popularity of Happy Meals and to McDonald's bottom line.

Articles on the new toys appeared throughout the summer months in US News & World Report, Newsday, The Washington Times, the Chicago Sun-Times, and the Chicago Tribune. The toys also garnered broadcast coverage on CNBC, CNN, CBS' The Early Show, and on local affiliates of NBC, CBS, and FOX. JSH&A estimates that this media coverage reached more than 260 million consumers.

Along with the media hype, the campaign also helped boost McDonald's sales for that summer. That rising tide lifted Happy Meals sales, as well, according to the company.

"Happy Meals sales are up 10 to 15 percent since May," Karlin Linhart, a senior marketing executive at McDonald's, told CNN/Money in late August. "It reflects a change. We're bringing better products with intense appeal to younger customers."


JSH&A and McDonald's have partnered on the 25 Years of Happiness Celebration campaign that kicked off in April of this year to commemorate the 25th anniversary of the debut of the Happy Meal. This yearlong campaign was set to peak last week, Dihel says, with a "Happy Birthday, Happy Meal" celebration at McDonald's restaurants across the country.

PR team: JSH&A Public Relations (Oakbrook Terrace, IL) and McDonald's (Oak Brook, IL)

Campaign: McDonald's Summer of Fun Happy Meals

Time frame: May through August 2003

Budget: $100,000

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