by Steve Adubato, PhD
Creating and sustaining a successful brand is a product of many factors. The way a company communicates what it is involves such elements as customer service, a logo, slogans, the image and reputation of its CEO, the product itself and, sometimes, a mascot.
In the branding game, even recognized names struggle to remain relevant. In the case of McDonald's, one of the most successful American brands since 1940, some top executives were concerned that Ronald McDonald, its iconic brand persona, was losing his edge. The big hair, the red shoes, his outrageous makeup and the fact that Ronald was kind of pudgy around the middle (in an age where a "healthy image" is essential) all suggested Ronald just wasn't connecting as he had in earlier days.
So McDonald's decided to thin out Ronald, update his clothes, shorten his hair and tone down his image, all in an effort to make him more relevant and likeable. But in the end, Ronald is still a clown, and let's face it, clowns have often communicated a mixed message, particularly with kids (and some adults) who are sometimes freaked out by them.
After the Ronald McDonald makeover, McDonald's decided to take the next branding step by creating a new mascot to communicate a different, "healthier" message about its new product offerings. Meet Happy, an unusual branding choice on many levels. For a visual, take a Happy meal box and add long wiry arms and legs, googly eyes, a pair of running shoes and massive white teeth, and that's Happy.
As soon as Happy appeared, the reaction on social media platforms was pretty negative. Check out just some of the Twitter posts:
"My son saw this and cried and I don’t even have a son."
"Might want to go back to the drawing board, I think I’m going to have nightmares."
"Hide your kids."
"Do you eat it? Or does it eat you?"
Ouch! No, it's not scientific, but social media does matter. It signals a visceral reaction on a segment of the population to a radical branding decision. The initial, mostly negative reaction on Twitter has made it extremely difficult for the story of McDonald’s Happy mascot to wind up with a happy ending.
Social media has changed the branding game dramatically. When new products, services, logos, slogans or a new mascot are introduced by an established brand, the initial reaction in the social media universe creates a powerful narrative.
For McDonald's, future communication about Happy is influenced by the initial negative reaction the mascot received on Twitter and McDonald's now has a public relation challenge.
There might not be a Ronald McDonald today if, when the same clown character had been introduced, social media was such an important platform. Old Ronald would have been an easy target on Twitter, don't you think?
The larger communication lesson of Happy is that even though McDonald's insists it used extensive focus groups to test market the reaction to the new mascot, a radical change such as this is bound to get a visceral and often negative reaction on social media. Organizations must be prepared for such a reaction as part of their overall branding and communication strategy.
Further, company mascots, particularly ones designed to appeal to kids, must communicate a warm and friendly message and tone. I'm not convinced Happy achieves this.