License to fly the corporate bet

DIC's management of McDonald's brand goes beyond Happy Meals and into consumer's lifestyles

When DIC Entertainment became the worldwide licensing agent for McDonald’s in the summer of 2005, there were plenty of reasons for the toon house to embrace the fast-food giant’s catchphrase, “I’m lovin’ it.”

It was DIC’s first foray into licensing within the corporate business realm, an opportunity to create out-of-restaurant experiences for one of the world’s most recognizable brands.

There also was reason for apprehension. In the wake of heightened media attention about the potential health risks of fast food — “Super Size Me,” lawsuits and, most notably, increasing childhood obesity — McDonald’s had seen several years of bad press.

While the brand has recently placed significant emphasis on supporting healthy, active lifestyles, McDonald’s continues to be faced with critics such as Eric Schlosser, whose 2001 book (and the soon-to-be-released movie adaptation) “Fast Food Nation” asserts that the corporation’s marketing practices have long exploited kids’ impressionable minds.

Those same marketing practices, however, played a positive role in DIC Consumer Products’ preliminary licensing concept, a program that tapped into the Golden Arches’ creative archive to capitalize on the ongoing retro trend.

“From the first day, it really just caught fire” with consumers, says Nancy Fowler, head of DIC global sales.

While some corporations might be afraid to poke fun at themselves — or worse, send messages that conflict with their contemporary advertising efforts — Oakbrook, Ill.-based McDonald’s not only had a sense of humor about the vintage strategy but embraced it, Fowler recalls.

DIC’s approach was “extraordinarily appropriate for the brand,” agrees Jeff Carl, McDonald’s VP of global marketing, considering its “51-year wealth of memories.”

The program, which launched last spring with a focus on specialty fashion apparel and accessories for adults and juniors, began with only a handful of licensees.

Los Angeles-based Mighty Fine (via its label Doe) produced a collection of T-shirts with images of Ronald McDonald, Grimace, the Hamburgler, Mayor McCheese and other classic McDonaldland characters as well as retired ad slogans such as “You deserve a break” and “Mac attack.” (The latter, in particular, tied in perfectly with McDonald’s reintroduced “special sauce-lettuce-cheese” Big Mac ad effort, originally aired in 1975.)

Merchandise, initially sold at high-end retailers, now is rolling out internationally. In addition, the campaign is expanding with both a tween program and soft goods and gifts designed for midrange retailers. DIC has extended its licensee roster to more than 100, and the vintage line is scheduled to appear in mass retail in 2007.

According to both Fowler and Carl, the program has seen remarkable results. Vintage tees have topped “must-have” lists in magazines including Ellegirl and Time, and are being worn by the kinds of hipster-chic tastemakers more likely to inspire images of young-Hollywood glamour than the sloth suggested in Morgan Spurlock’s 2004 doc “Super Size Me.”

A second part of DIC’s strategy, the McKids program, highlights McDonald’s expressed commitment to its customers’ overall well-being and “balanced, active lifestyles,” per the company. It’s a global focus the corporation also has addressed with the addition of menu items such as Premium Salads and Apple Dippers snacks, Carl says.

According to Fowler, McKids won’t launch in the U.S. until 2007. But DIC is working with its first McKids partner, Sport Fun, to develop a toy line “that promotes activity but is still a lot of fun.”

The brand’s initial offering is expected to be an electronic device that, when used in tandem with other toys, helps children track their exercise in various imaginative ways. The McKids collection also will include outdoor play equipment, children’s activewear and accessories.

This is not the first time McDonald’s has attempted to extend its experience beyond the restaurant environment.

In the late ’90s, the brand had an exclusive program at Wal-Mart; there are established efforts under way in China and Mexico, for which DIC has taken over management. This is the first time, however, that the 30,000-restaurant corporation has dedicated itself to connecting with consumers in such “creative, new and relevant ways,” Carl says.

McDonald’s felt confidant embarking on such bold initiatives with DIC, Carl explains, as it has watched DIC’s successes with other brands.

In addition, McDonald’s has a history with the company: In July 1999, McDonald’s teamed with DIC Entertainment for an Inspector Gadget promotion; Carl says that’s still “one of the top 10 Happy Meals of all time.” And in its current affiliation, he notes, DIC has “proven to be been extraordinary partner.”

The partnership could extend even further, according to Jill Cassada, McDonald’s global marketing manager, as “McDonald’s is definitely open to (brand-appropriate) entertainment options.”

Though nothing has been finalized, “We’re talking about some very interesting concepts for entertainment,” Fowler notes. Possibilities include a McKids DVD/video series, digital partnerships, and Happy Meal promotions incorporating DIC Entertainment-property characters.

Whatever happens, Carl promises, consumers can be sure that Ronald McDonald will be a part of the efforts. The jumpsuited mascot continues to resonate with customers, he says, and carries “a strong message” about healthy, balanced lifestyles.

“Ronald is the spirit of brand McDonald’s,” Carl says. “There’s always a place for Ronald.”

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