James Franco and the Hamburglar: small steps in McD's comeback

Why the Hamburglar's resurrection and James Franco's op-ed could pave the way for McDonald's next chapter

The new Hamburglar
The new Hamburglar

McDonald’s has had a busy week – a turnaround plan, the Hamburglar’s resurrection, and an op-ed by James Franco – and while these small steps won’t solve all of the fast-food giant’s problems, they could help pave the way for its next chapter.

The chain, founded in 1940, is struggling to stay relevant and modern. It’s been fighting an uphill battle with Millennials for years as the young consumer set continues eyeing made-to-order joints, such as Shake Shack, In-N-Out Burger, Five Guys, and Chipotle.

On Tuesday, McDonald’s revealed the new Hamburglar, a mascot who has been out of the picture for 13 years. The brand’s VP of US marketing, Joel Yashinsky, said in a statement to Mashable that the Hamburglar has "had some time to grow up a bit and has been busy raising a family in the suburbs and his look has evolved over time."

While the refreshed mascot may seem silly in all of its irreverence, it’s been resonating with consumers, especially on social media. The Internet buzzed on Tuesday with Facebook comments, tweets, and articles about the Hamburglar. Some think he’s hot, others think he’s creepy; but either way, the tongue-in-cheek humor is key for the legacy brand to connect with younger audiences who are used to marketing tactics of the Old Spices and Dos Equis of the world. Think: The Man Your Man Could Smell Like and The Most Interesting Man in the World initiatives.

Personally, the new Hamburglar made me laugh. It won’t make me buy food at McDonald’s anytime soon, but I still found it funny.

As for the James Franco op-ed, for those wondering if McDonald’s paid the actor to ink the piece, The Washington Post told PRWeek otherwise. The publication actively solicited the article from Franco, having remembered his prior work experience at the restaurant.

The op-ed wasn’t all roses in the garden, but it was honest, heartfelt, and funny. Though Franco questions the quality of McD’s meat at the end, the piece overall seems like a win for the brand because it was a genuinely penned opinion article by a popular, young actor. And one who’s well-known among various generations, but particularly Millennials, for the movies he’s starred in and his (sometimes) outlandish antics.

Now onto the turnaround plan announced Monday by newly minted CEO Steve Easterbrook. This is where McDonald’s fell short for me this week. Easterbrook discussed how he wants to focus on "McDonald's future as a modern, progressive burger company" by building brand excitement and cutting costs, but, let’s face it, the main issue is food.

Easterbrook mentioned changing McDonald’s food quality and brand image, and offering new products like its sirloin burger and artisan grilled chicken sandwich. He said the brand will put more emphasis on the sourcing of ingredients and reformulating of recipes. But in the 23-minute video webcast, the chief exec doesn’t spell out how the brand plans on improving the quality of its food or from where it will source its upgraded ingredients. This should definitely be touched on in Easterbrook’s next discussion if he wants consumers to trust the brand.

And he can also highlight how McDonald’s has made a number of better-for-you changes over the years, such as launching new nutritional guidelines and an app in 2011 and pledging to reduce sodium and offer smaller portions by 2020.

Golin, the brand’s PR agency for the last 60 years, has been trying new things recently to revitalize the struggling brand. The firm executed McDonald’s Our Food, Your Questions initiative from last October, which asked customers to submit questions on social media about the brand’s food. It also included behind-the-scenes videos showing how the food is produced.

Fred Cook, the firm’s CEO, previously told PRWeek that the effort took two years of planning with the fast-food company’s marketing department, ad agencies, and legal department. He also said the program is "the biggest social media engagement any PR agency has done."

The campaign, which addressed the pink slime-chicken nugget rumor, garnered enormous traditional and social media pickup.

Perhaps the brand should continue releasing transparent content online and on social media as it tries to break away from its unhealthy label.

Millennials want healthier food. Sustainable, organic, all-natural – they may seem like buzzwords or marketing ploys, but even if they are, that’s what many young consumers want for themselves and their children.

The irreverent, quirky fun stuff as of late is helpful in engaging Millennials, but in the long run, McDonald’s has to sell products. To do that, it needs to prove to the growing population of health-conscious consumers that it’s taking their lifestyles seriously.

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