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McDonald’s Marketing Strategies You Can Apply to Your Arts Organization

Updated: 4 days ago

Last week, eleven arts marketers participated in an Executive Roundtable Discussion about earning loyalty from new audiences through branding and storytelling.


Paula Steenstra, McDonald's Director of Packaging and Visual Identity, joined us to discuss some shifts in their marketing strategies, last year's Grimace revival campaign that went viral, and more.


You might be thinking:


  • What do marketing burgers and fries have to do with new audiences at an arts organization?

  • Or, you can't begin to compare McDonald's to a nonprofit arts organization. I can't even imagine having their budget and resources.


It turns out, there are many lessons any business or organization could learn from this discussion, especially if you start to think of how you can apply the strategies or frameworks to your organization, and develop tactics within your budget later.


First, McDonald's faces some of the same challenges arts organizations do.


McDonald's is one of the world's most iconic brands. It's easy to think they have marketing it all figured out. In reality, McDonald's faces the same challenges as arts and culture organizations. They just have more digits in their bank account.


As a 50-year-old brand that pioneered fast food, McDonald's now competes with many fast-casual dining options. They, like arts organizations, are looking to attract and retain younger customers.


Lesson 1: Discover "Fan Truths"


"Fan truths" show McDonald’s what their customer's experience is like through their fans eyes. These moments, rituals, and behaviors tell the truth about your mission and your audience’s experience with them.


In other words, you don't define that experience that someone has with your organization, your audience members define their own experience. McDonald's recognizes this and celebrates their fans' orders, even creating special menu items based on these experiences. See Saweetie's Big Mac hack.


Arts organizations can also discover their own fan truths by asking different questions in surveys, focus groups, or even one-to-one conversations. You'd be surprised what you'd learn from a one-to-one conversation.


Want to discover your "fan truths" but don't know where to start? Learn more about our Audience Insight Accelerator package.


Lesson 2: Put Your Audience at the Center of Their Adventure


You've heard this one before.


Traditional arts marketing puts the art at the center of the campaign: "Look how great we are...buy a ticket."


McDonald's had the same strategy by only showing off menu items. For example advertising used to only show burgers, fries, and sodas.


People's tastes have changed. Whether it's burgers or ballet, they want to see themselves or people like them enjoying the product.


Today, McDonald's shows off fans eating the product and celebrates the creative ways fans may show how they use enjoy their favorite menu items on social media — even if their interpretation isn't aligned with their brand standards.


Lesson 3: Be “Flawsome” 

Speaking of perfect, it's ok to be imperfect sometimes.


As marketers, we often get caught up in perfection. People actually like seeing imperfection. It's called the Pratfall Effect, which is when people like you even more when you make a mistake.


McDonald's used to only show a perfectly photographed image of a burger, fries, and soda. Today, they are not afraid to be "flawsome" by showing a bite in the burger, or grease rolling down someone's hand in a sexy way.


Lesson 4: Lean into nostalgia

Many people remember celebrating their birthday at McDonald's, which was the inspiration for the Grimace revival campaign.


During Grimace's birthday week, McDonald's released a purple milkshake, a meal, and a GameBoy Color video game to celebrate and encourage fans to create new birthday memories. Grimace also did a social media takeover by sharing selfies and tweeting like a Gen Zer.


The results? 1.27M social mentions, 160K Grimace shake TikToks, 400M views, and purple milkshakes that were impossible to get.


Lesson 5: Segment Your Audience and Tell Stories That Appeal to Them

Paula mentioned that her husband thought the visuals she created for a campaign "looked weird."


Her response was: "It's not for you. We already have you. You're also most likely not going to see this. "


Arts organizations are frequently concerned about annoying or turning off their traditional arts audience members by doing something daring or different for new audience members.


Marketing and advertising to Gen Z looks a lot different than advertising to Gen X. In fact, older audience members may not even see the advertising campaign because they've placed different images and messaging in different advertising channels.


You can achieve keeping your traditional arts audience happy and retaining new, younger audiences by highly segmenting your audiences and tweaking creative, so it appeals to different audience segments and placing it in different channels.


Thank you again to Paula Steenstra for attending as our special guest and Justin Holden for co-hosting the Discussion.


An intimate discussion about arts marketing and McDonald's sounds cool, right?


More Discussions are in the works. Connect with 12-15 of your arts marketing peers for valuable, pitch-free discussions on arts marketing and audience development. Get on the priority invite list to upcoming Discussions and more actionable marketing advice.






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