These days, McDonald's is just as likely to serve up a high-profile collab as a new hamburger.
Over the past few years, the fast food chain has revamped its public image in an effort to reconnect with younger fans and increase its cultural relevance. It has partnered with artists like Cardi B and BTS as well as streetwear brands Palace and Cactus Plant Flea Market.
It's an effort that has been underway for the better part of the past five years, says Tariq Hassan, the restaurant's chief marketing and customer experience officer.
"We lost our connection with our customer," Hassan says of McDonald's place in popular culture a few years ago. "And as a result of that, ultimately, we lost the meaning of 'I'm loving it.'"
A nationwide listening tour helped McDonald's better understand what fans wanted. It led to the favorite orders campaign, which saw it highlight the go-to orders from famous celebrities. The debut of the campaign in 2019 with rapper Travis Scott proved so popular that it caused a shortage of McDonald's famous Quarter Pounder.
When Hassan joined McDonald's, he pushed the brand to connect with popular culture even further.
"You can be iconic, but not still relevant in culture," Hassan says. "There's lots of brands that are iconic, but then fade into the culture."
A tweet shared in 2020 helped inspire an effort that McDonald's has been pushing to this day. The brand's account created a post reading "one day you ordered a Happy Meal for the last time and you didn't even know it." It got more than 24,000 likes and 5,000 retweets, capturing the attention of McDonald's team.
"And we thought 'what's under that?'" Hassan says. "It's really about childhood loss."
What resulted was an adult Happy Meal made in collaboration with streetwear brand Cactus Plant Flea Market. Though there were no new menu items in the combo — it was just a Big Mac or 10-piece Chicken McNuggets with a soda and fries — the Happy Meal-style box and inclusion of a "collectible figurine" of retro McDonald's mascots Grimace, the Hamburglar and Birdie caused a frenzy.
The box quickly sold out at many locations across the country, and some opportunistic resellers began listing the plastic toys on eBay for thousands of dollars.
McDonald's has embraced limited edition collabs with popular streetwear brands.
Jerritt Clark | Getty Images Entertainment | Getty Images
"That was a cultural shift for us," Hassan says. "You can imagine when you drop something like Cactus Plant Flea Market and you sell out in 12 days on what's supposed to be a 30 day promotion. We had to turn around and spend time with our franchisees getting them comfortable with the fact that 'It's okay you sold out.'"
Since then, McDonald's has doubled down on streetwear. Over the summer, McDonald's released a line of limited-edition clothing with the British skate brand PALACE, and this month partnered with New York-based artist Kerwin Frost for another Happy Meal-style combo with limited-edition collectibles.
McDonald's approach to these collabs — with limited-edition items and pop-up stores — has been designed to create a sense of urgency more often found in the sneaker industry.
"When we developed these, the intent was to be much more shoe drop culture than it was a traditional promotion," Hassan says. "We've been a little more like StockX than we have a traditional [quick-service restaurant]."
So far, the plan appears to be working: the collectible McNugget Buddies from the Kerwin Frost Box have already made their way to Ebay, with some sellers asking for hundreds of dollars.
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