How McDonald's #imlovinit24 made play for Millennials

A global wave of activations aimed to shift young diners' "polarizing" attitudes about the fast-food giant

The fun started in Sydney with a giant ball pit designed to look like a huge cup of coffee.

McDonald’s then told Aussie patrons that they were getting a free cup of joe. Shortly after that, customers in New Zealand were treated to talking Big Mac boxes. In Ho Chi Minh City, the fast-feeder gave out free lunches to any customer who uttered the phrase "I’m lovin’ it." In all, 24 countries took part in the 36-hour initiative, called #imlovinit24, on March 24.

There’s nothing significant about the date. Matt Biespiel, senior director-global brand development at McDonald’s, says the company was looking for the 24th of some month, and March seemed the most appropriate. The "24" theme was reflected in the number of gifts (24) given out in 24 cities across the globe. The 36 hours? You know: time zones.

McDonald’s and its agency partners started planning for the day a year ago and often held conference calls that spanned 20 cities. "We went through rounds of ideas on the activations," says Rob Schwartz, CEO of the New York office for TBWA/Chiat/Day, the lead agency on the effort. "We must have come up with 200 before we came up with the 24." The planning for the initiative was intense, Schwartz says. "It was literally like military precision with how they were going to happen," he says. "[We’d ask] What’s the idea? What’s the story arc of the idea? What key shots were you going to shoot for social media?"

Social media, of course, was the central mechanism for getting the word out to the target Millennial customers who are turning up their noserings at McD’s in favor of Chipotle. Much of the March 24 initiative — dubbed "Gifts of Joy" — was designed to soften Gen Y’s view of McDonald’s.

Read: In Hong Kong, McDonald's throws surprise party for #imlovinit day

As Schwartz acknowledges, Millennials seem to have an irrational enmity for McDonald’s. "It’s a brand that is very polarizing," he says. "If we could just get more people who love it to love it more and people who are real detractors to see that it’s not such an evil empire, then we’ve done our jobs."

By that measure, the program has succeeded, says Matt Biespiel, senior director-global brand development. At least he thinks so. "The early read on all of the analytics is it’s saying it’s exceeding the expectations that we had," Biespiel says. "The real focus here was at a global scale shift our thinking to being a content provider. When you start thinking of being a global content provider at scale, you begin looking for benchmarks at for KPIs [key performance indicators] that make sense — and you realize rapidly that there aren’t any benchmarks."

McDonald’s and its agencies plowed ahead anyway and deemed a few metrics as important: impressions (2 billion) and completed views of social media content (well over 100 million). "Those are pretty big numbers for a one-day event," he says.

That said, the chain is still crunching the numbers and will use those figures to guide its strategy going forward. At the moment, there’s no other program of this magnitude planned. (At least none that Biespiel wants to talk about.)

As a manifestation of McDonald’s overall direction, though, #imlovinit24 may be more significant that the numbers show. Biespiel is convinced that the chain’s best shot at wooing GenYers is to refashion the company as a maker of content. This is hardly a unique path these days — Coca-Cola has been doing similar stuff for a few years now, though it hasn’t executed a global event the way McD’s has — but it’s a logical choice.

"I think it’s the future," says Schwartz.

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