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McDonald's new social push requires valued real-time relevancy

McDonald?s is overhauling its Twitter strategy by giving brand mascot Ronald McDonald a shining role, but the chain will miss the mark on winning over younger consumers without a concrete understanding of the real-time marketing that Taco Bell and others have already mastered.

The burger brand has downplayed Ronald McDonald?s marketing potential the past few years, but is now choosing to make him a central part of the ?Fun makes great things happen? campaign. McDonald?s announced that same-same stores were down during the second-quarter of 2014 earlier this week, which the latest campaign seems to address since it appeals to a new audience.

?It?s going to take a lot more than putting Ronald McDonald in a pair of cargo pants to energize new customers,? said Deborah Hanamura, director of marketing at Metia, Seattle. 

?The success that brands like Taco Bell and Red Bull have had in social media are rooted in their innate understanding of their audience and how to communicate with them,? she said. ?Social media channels don?t succeed with customers ? great content does. Social channels are just the mechanism for putting that content out there.?

Ms. Hanamura is not affiliated with McDonald?s. She commented based on her expertise on the subject.

McDonald?s did not respond to press inquiries.

Can the clown work?
McDonald?s will begin incorporating Ronald McDonald into the brand?s Twitter posts with the hashtag #RonaldMcDonald.

The goal is that the character will inject some personality into McDonald?s social and mobile initiatives. The brand boasts more than 2.2 million Twitter followers and regularly posts content that primarily focuses on products.

The addition of Ronald McDonald could suggest that the Twitter content may shift to feature more content and less product placement. This is especially important for McDonald?s in reaching a younger demographic who are easily put off from advertising that is too pushy.

Limiting the interactions to only a Twitter handle could also be a challenge for McDonald's versus using a dedicated account set up for the character.

"My concern is that McDonald's is rolling him out as a voice on the main corporate account," said Rob Engelsman, community manager at Huge, New York.

"If McDonald?s truly wants Ronald to be Ronald, he needs his own account, his own voice, etc.," he said.

"They?ve tweeted that he's 'just dipping in his toes right now,' which is a cute way to stall, but it also means that people are already asking for him to have his own handle that they can interact with. We?ll see how long it takes McDonald?s to take those next steps."

In addition to incorporating Ronald McDonald into Twitter, the brand is giving him a new look that is meant to appeal towards older consumers, including yellow cargo shorts and a new vest. Theatrical director Ann Hould-Ward designed the new wardrobe.

Television spots and in-store promotions will round out the campaign?s marketing mix later this year.

Sparking up sales
The new look for the burger chain?s mascot comes at a time when McDonald?s is trying to spark some interest with millennials and teens after rough first quarter sales.

McDonalds? approach to marketing has traditionally relied on pushing out messages to as many people as possible, including a series of flashy mobile ad campaigns over the past few years with rich media and interactive games.

Most recently, the chain tweaked this strategy slightly with a new native advertising campaign that promoted its organic line of coffee. 

With other chains including Taco Bell, Burger King and Dunkin Donuts making a bigger push into breakfast products, McDonalds? native ads indicate that the chain is looking to dial down its typically aggressive messaging to win the breakfast market (see story). 

What is interesting about the native ads is that the focus on the food-making process, which can be effective in winning over millennials, per Andrea Stalf, global head of performance marketing at SapientNitro, Boston.

?Millennials may want a few facts with their fries and native advertising,? she said. ?Social and interruptive out-of-home can be great for that, in combination with a strong anthem campaign to infuse confidence in the brand. They buy into brands they both trust and like.?

McDonald?s obviously has a big opportunity to connect with millennials and teens via social media, but the brand?s initial plans for Twitter make it a bit confusing to understand what demographic the burger chain is chasing.

McDonald?s plans to center its Twitter strategy on hashtags and selfies. While selfies may be effective at engaging teenagers, taking and sharing photos of themselves are less likely to influence millennials.

Despite the big digital push McDonald?s strategy will still need to create compelling in-store experiences and products move the sales needle.

?McDonald's value proposition is the same as it always has been,? said Jeremy Leon, senior strategist at Laundry Service, New York.

?Sure, selfies resonate with this target audience, but look at Chipotle ? they actually started offering healthier and more organic foods because that's what's cool now and that has resulted in great, authentic marketing,? he said.

?Understanding what their target audience wants [and] using real-time social data should be step one for McDonald?s.? 

Final Take
Lauren Johnson is associate reporter on Mobile Marketer, New York