“McDonald’s can become the new American church, and it isn’t going to be open just on Sundays.”
These were the words of Ray Kroc, the man behind McDonald’s great expansion, and subject of the recent film The Founder. It is the story of how the McDonald brothers, Richard and Maurice, developed the first mechanised burger restaurant system which churned out ‘fast food’ in 30 seconds to the delight of its customers – and then, how the almost washed up salesman Kroc, upon discovering this revolutionary restaurant, convinced the cautious brothers to franchise. As the story goes, the greedy Kroc wrests power and name from the naïve brothers, and the McDonald’s Corporation is born. Kroc goes on to make a fortune, while the brothers are left with comparatively very little for their original invention.
Watching The Founder it is easy to simplify the story in this way. While it is all true, as marketers we should not overlook Kroc’s vision for the McDonald’s restaurant’s role in American culture, and how this was culturally enacted, as being potentially McDonald’s greatest innovation.
Sociologist George Ritzer famously coined the term the“McDonaldisation of society” which references the brother’s mechanised system and how speed and efficiency became the order of the day in the 20th Century.
However, another way of thinking about the McDonaldisation of society relates more to the work of Kroc and the McDonald’s Corp through to the 1980’s: how McDonald’s entered every taken for granted aspect of American life, and, as another sociologist Marcus Giesler puts it, did in fact become something close to the new American church.
As marketers we have a lot to learn from the history of McDonald’s. From Kroc’s time to today, it is a tale of two marketing philosophies: (1) culturally enacting the market for fast food at a societal level during the Kroc era and carried on by the corporation into the 80’s; and (2) incrementally maintaining within category conventions from the 90’s to today.
In the modern day we often see the latter dominating the work of marketing, resulting in a short-term drive to chase trends and fulfill unmet customer needs within already established markets and categories. However, this is increasingly proving insufficient when we look at the bigger picture challenge of realigning the growing number of fundamental category-culture disconnects, as is currently the case for the fast food industry.
Marketing today needs to have the longer-term process of culturally enacting (or re-enacting) markets as its central function – embedding our brands and businesses in 21st Century cultural values. For this we can learn from what Kroc and the McDonald’s Corp did with McDonald’s in the 20th Century and how this related to the societal values of that time.
There is a telling scene in The Founder where Kroc, having just witnessed McDonald’s new fast food experience and customers flocking to the restaurant, is driving through a small town main street and picturing the skyline. He saw it dominated by crosses and flags but could also see space in this landscape for a new cultural symbol – the Golden Arches. What Kroc understood in this moment was that there was an emerging culture that could value speed and efficiency over everything else; so much so that McDonald’s restaurants could replace the dining room table. And when served up with the wholesome McDonald’s name, he saw that McDonald’s could become a cultural icon for the times.
The first part of his genius was recognising this cultural opportunity; the second was culturally enacting it. To do so meant doing something unfamiliar to most of us as marketers today – not relying on knowing what people will do based on listening to consumers but instead taking a bet on what people could do based on an understanding of emerging cultural values. There was no clear unmet need for fast food per se, but rather a latent cultural opportunity in a society that was beginning to value speed and ease.
Kroc and the McDonald’s Corporation leveraged this latent cultural opportunity with the Golden Arches entering into every suburb, our clubs, and even our birthday parties and academic institutions. The pre-1990’s McDonald’s restaurants were what Giesler called “a bold cultural creative” creating innovations beyond the category that truly ‘McDonaldised society’. The innovations were all oncode for an increasingly rushed culture. For example, McDonald’s getting into the business of hosting chaotic children’s birthday parties became a welcome new option for parents; and giving McDonald’s vouchers to kids after sports games served as a reminder to mum of an easy lunch option as she taxied her children from game to game. By the late 1980s, the McDonaldisation became so complete that there was even a time when it was sacrilege to not have your child’s birthday at McDonald’s. But that was all about to change with a major cultural shift.
Despite McDonald’s cultural success, or perhaps as a result of it, at some point in the early 90’s, as Markus Giesler puts it, “politicians, nutritional experts, and food activists began to de-McDonaldise society, which led to the undoing of many of these taken-for-granted consumer rituals (takeaways and fast food).” These rituals that were so embedded in our modern lives, and which had for the most part gone unquestioned, were to become very culturally off code over the next two decades — including the birthday parties, the sponsoring of children’s sport, and even the restaurants as a space for families.
And so began a cultural movement away from the fast food system that McDonald’s had best come to represent – the seeds of which first appeared in the Slow Food Movement, which began on the Spanish Steps in Rome in 1986, when McDonald's planned to open a franchise there. Today, there is a fundamental category-culture disconnect between the values and worldview of a significant and growing segment of Western society and the everyday business of the fast food giant.
But it was never a given that the cultural shift would make this disconnect inevitable. In fact, the shift represented a cultural opportunity to innovate and build a new and better market for fast food, aligned with newly emerging cultural codes, movements and subcultures – to reinvent the company and re-McDonaldise society, but this time based around a different set of values, ideals and experiences.
However, this would not be possible with McDonald’s marketing approach of incrementally maintaining the market within category conventions rather than culturally reenacting a new and better market.
As Markus Giesler puts it: "The management team lost itself in the nitty-gritty of touch, sense, feel aspects of the experience delivery. They changed the menu, ingredients, the restaurant atmosphere, and many other things. Not that these things didn’t matter, they absolutely do. But they can’t turn the ship around if the company forgets to re-McDonaldise society”. In short, McDonald’s looked in at themselves and focused on what their customers thought was wrong with the business’ operation. What they needed to do was look outside the business and do cultural research: listening to people to deeply understand their collective lives and emerging culture, and realise the opportunities to connect with this.
While McDonald’s was busy introducing salads and turning restaurants into coffee houses, it missed that the real opportunity to connect with changing culture lay far closer to its roots. Today a ‘Bygone Fast Food Revival’, as coined by JWT Intelligence, is well underway that emphasises the craveability and unadulterated nature of fast food we all love (big juicy burgers) but does so in a way that is aligned with the values of today – handmade, locally sourced and high-quality, but affordably priced. This revival is booming not just in the US – the home of the burger (see California restaurant LocoL) – but in New Zealand too with restaurants like Better Burger and Burger Burger.
This might seem like a recent trend, but the macro cultural seeds of this movement lie in a major cultural shift that began in the late 1990’s and early 2000’s: a yearning for yesteryear combined with disillusionment with big business standardisation of everything, and worker’s dissatisfaction with their own corporate lives. This became evident in many aspects of culture, including a folk music revival in the face of over-produced mainstream music. It was also seen in many people leaving the corporate world to lead more artisanal lives, a move that became known as the “bourgeois bohemian”. Today this idealised subculture has now become mainstream, and we see manifestations of this and the micro-cultural currents that are spinning off it in much of the work we do, as well as by monitoring social media channels through Zavy.
McDonald’s needed to have been doing this cultural research back then. Their challenge now is to play cultural catch-up and understand the cultural shift behind the ‘Bygone Fast Food Revival’ better than anyone: to re-McDonaldise society and play an authentic role in culturally enacting the market for this different brand of 21st Century fast food. McDonald’s has scale and heritage at their disposal. But they must start daring to imagine what people could do (not simply what they will do) and be bold cultural creatives once again. For this, they can take inspiration from Kroc.