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How the Happy Meal Can Point the Way Forward for McDonald’s

happy meal

Institutions are larger-than-life forces that help us organize and participate in our daily lives. And they are so critical to our everyday existence that they often go unrecognized or unnoticed. Some are social – things like religion, marriage, education and law – while others are cultural – colleges, museums, sports, dining and so forth. 

Considered through the lens of food and dining in the 20th and 21st centuries, McDonald’s is without question the most significant cultural institution in American society. Nothing else comes close. 

Think for a moment about all of the things that routinely happen within our golden arches, most of which go largely unnoticed. 

Four generations of American teenagers have relied on McDonald’s as their home base for their after-school and weekend social lives. McDonald’s has long been the setting for the millions of senior citizens who meet daily to sip coffee and swap stories. Folks from all religious, ethnic and class backgrounds began their adult careers working at McDonald’s.[1]

Generations of young kids all understand what it was like to wait impatiently for their Happy Meal treats.[2] To this day, McDonald’s is often the destination of choice for youth parties and team dinners after ball practice.  

And none of this even includes the food, which has long been an iconic staple of American food culture.

In other words, when it comes to food and dining in U.S. society, McDonald’s is an institution like no other. 

Of course, institutions are ever changing. But if history is any indication, they typically stick around, insofar as we need them. 

Marriage in the U.S. certainly hit some rough spots in the late 1970s, when we saw a dramatic jump in divorce rates attributed to the onset of no-fault divorce. But it’s persevered. Those divorce rates are now markedly lower than in 1980.

Similar to marriage, McDonald’s appears to be hitting some rough spots of its own as of late. Recent figures indicate profits are down 30%, and they’ve experienced same-store sales declines in each of the past four quarters.[3] 

CEO Don Thompson outlined his strategic plan to address these challenges in a call with Reuter’s: 

Thompson said McDonald's is simplifying menus, tailoring food to local tastes, offering custom burger and sandwich options, rolling out mobile services such as payments and ordering, and opening a social media "dialogue" with customers.[4]

Some of these initiatives seem promising enough. Maintaining a dialogue with customers over social media is likely a step in the right direction, though it is unclear why this wasn’t happening before their financial challenges. 

But taken as a whole, these tactical responses seem oddly suited to promote the institution we know and love that is McDonald’s. 

The various tactics feel like they were developed on a whiteboard, a marketer’s response to a problem with little regard for the place McDonald’s occupies in American culture. 

You see, McDonald’s has always been about fun. An indulgent taste experience. A meeting with friends. A dinner with the family. A child getting a new toy and frolicking on the playground equipment. A daily coffee klatch. And so forth. 

That’s what McDonald’s is. 

So new initiatives to promote institutional growth need always begin with this foundation before considering incremental tactical responses. 

Offering “custom burger and sandwich options” is worth a shot. Then again, the Arch Deluxe seemed like a no-brainer. 

To that end, there’s been a flood of discussion with regard to how McDonald’s can compete in the fast casual space with the likes of Panera, Chipotle and so forth. 

This is a misguided discussion. McDonald’s will never compete directly with folks like Chipotle, and that’s a good thing. 

Because McDonald’s is about something much larger, about something much more. 

To be clear, we believe it is absolutely important to maintain a strong focus on innovation. It’s just that one’s innovation strategy should be forever driven by thorough understanding of the institution we all know and love. 

The introduction of a kid’s Happy Meal (with toy!) in 1979. There’s an awesome idea! What better way to enhance the cultural experience than to bring joy to a child’s life? 

Social media, mobile payments, custom burgers. 

Where’s the happy in all of that?

[1] According to company estimates, one in every eight American workers has been employed by McDonald's.

[2] McDonald's is the world's largest distributor of toys, with one included in 20% of all sales.


Food & Beverage Occasions Consumer Package Goods Technology/Social Media


As leaders in the study of American food culture, The Hartman Group has been tracking how Americans shop for food since the 1990s. From one-stop shopping to multichannel shopping to online markets and click-and-collect, we continue to track consumers’ evolving perceptions, needs, habits and relationships with food retailers. New to the 2017 report is a special section on the expansion of the discount grocery channel, the emerging fresh-format channel and smaller-footprint retail formats.


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