. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

McDonald's Marketing Grows Up

WASHINGTON -- Can Ronald McDonald, that clown, become a hip, happenin' dude of the '90s?

Ron's people at McDonald's Corp. hope so. In a portent of a major new marketing drive, the aging ambassador of the world's largest burger chain has lately been showing up in some unusual places. New TV commercials show Ronald on the golf course, in a disco. Even -- try this with a Happy Meal -- shooting pool in a dingy pool hall.

McDonald's, which has saturated the nation with golden arches, is in desperate need of a break these days. With its domestic business socked by intense competition (operating profits were down 4 percent in the first quarter), the company is seeking a new niche. The new "teaser" ads signal where McDonald's thinks opportunity lies: with grownups, specifically baby boomers.

The company on Thursday rolled out its much-hyped Arch Deluxe hamburger, which it hopes will reap $1 billion in sales its first year, with fanfare that included a chorus line of Rockettes here and a seven-story replica in Los Angeles.

"This is the first new sandwich we have created especially for adults," McDonald's Chairman Michael Quinlan told guests at the official launch at Radio City Music Hall in Manhattan, according to Reuters.

The Arch Deluxe, the result of two years and hundreds of tests with different ingredients, is a quarter-pounder with lettuce and tomato, plus Dijon and other mustard sauces, served on a potato-flour roll. It comes with a bacon option.

While the burger isn't much different from the burger-and-bacon sandwiches already offered by Burger King, Wendy's and Roy Rogers, the Arch Deluxe is part of a broader effort by McDonald's to convince adults that its restaurants are the place to eat even if they aren't accompanied by a child. Indeed, the new item will be promoted with the phrase, "the burger with the grown-up taste."

This not-so-subtle come-on to older customers may be a recognition of one inexorable demographic fact: Fast-food customers, like America itself, are getting older.

"The kids' market isn't the big mushrooming market it was in the 1970s and '80s," says Mike Gaffney, managing partner at Earle Palmer Brown, a Bethesda, Maryland, agency that has created ad campaigns for Roy Rogers. If McDonald's is going to keep growing in a saturated market, "they've got to find a way to appeal to the boomers and older (Generation) Xers and drop the kiddie routine," Gaffney says.

That's unlikely to happen soon, of course. From its headquarters in Oak Brook, Illinois, McDonald's has invested billions of dollars over the decades in erecting an image of convenience and family-friendly wholesomeness.

It has reinforced these themes year after year in ad campaigns ranging from the classic "You deserve a break today" to more recent efforts such as "Food, Folks and Fun."

And because its image is so solidly affixed in consumers' minds, it may be impossible for McDonald's to convince adults that it is something other than what it has always claimed to be, marketing experts say.

"Every time you see Ronald McDonald, whether he's in a pool hall or not, it just reminds you that McDonald's is a place for little kids," says Jack Trout, a marketing strategist and the co-author of several books about brand images.

Companies that have ventured too far from consumer expectations have paid for it, says Trout, citing failed efforts by Xerox and AT&T to enter the computer field, or Volkswagen's disastrous attempt to capitalize on the VW Beetle by introducing bigger, clunkier cars.

Trout suggests the way to capture new markets is not to stretch your brand beyond recognition, but to create an entirely new brand, as Honda did with its Acura luxury car line and Toyota did with Lexus.

As such, McDonald's would be wiser to buy another restaurant company that already appeals to adults -- say, the Boston Market chain -- than to try to do it under the McDonald's name, he suggests.

"To really capture adults, they'll have to radically change their whole culture, starting with the swing sets out front," says Trout. "They're not going to change anyone's mind. ... My message to them is good luck and good night."

In fact, McDonald's has been down this road before -- and the results were not pretty. Hoping to capture weight-conscious baby boomers, the company heavily promoted the McLean Deluxe, a reduced-fat burger made with a seaweed extract. But the McLean Deluxe never caught fire and recently disappeared altogether from McDonald's menu.

The new Arch Deluxe may be the anti-McLean Deluxe; it is high-fat and "proud of it," says Aimee Stern, editor of the Marketing Report, a newsletter.

She adds that that may be the most adult thing about it. "McDonald's has recognized that adults don't come to fast-food restaurants for health food," Stern says. "This (product) will say to the world `we've got fat and we're not going to hide it from you.'"