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  • Maria Barbieri

Ethnography: the unsung hero behind McDonald’s latest campaign and how businesses can tap into it

Updated: Mar 16, 2023

In the past weeks there’s been a lot of discussions within the marketing industry about McDonald’s latest campaign, which by featuring no food nor a restaurant, pointed to the power of brand over product. The ad Fancy a McDonald’s, created by Leo Burnett UK and directed by acclaimed film director Edgar Wright, shows a whole office building marching to McDonald’s for lunch, after one worker raises their arches. The underlying messaging being, in the words of the CMO at McDonald’s UK & Ireland: “In a challenging time, our Raise Your Arches invitation to McDonald’s provides the nation with a small but much-needed moment to let go and feel good”. The ad has received lots of praises for the effective visual execution and for the ability of leveraging on the strength of the brand equity. And even if the ad might look subtly branded, it has also scored high on brand recognition and short-term sales potential, according to effectiveness firm System1 who put the ad through their Test Your Ad platform. That's because brand's cues are actually cleverly disseminated throughout, including the raised eyebrows signal which alludes to the brand’s Golden Arches logo.

What lies beneath

However, the most exciting part for me was digging into the strategy behind the creative angle and learning about the ethnography research that fuelled it. For this I have to credit, the On Strategy Showcase podcast with Fergus O'Carroll who in a recent episode interviewed ( link in the comment) Tom Sussman, Head of Strategy and Joe Beveridge, Strategy Director at Leo Burnett UK. The two guests explained how an extensive piece of ethnography research, conducted together with The Outsiders Insight agency, allowed them to unlock the two key insights the creative team used to develop the campaign. Apparently, ethnography was not new to the McDonald’s team. They normally look for insights within the culture of the brand and observe how people interact with it rather than searching outside and going for big societal trends. In this case, to drive more love towards the brand and appeal to people's emotions, they wanted to focus on the significance of the food. So they needed to answer these two questions :

1. What does McDonald's mean for the British public today? What is the role that Mc Donald’s plays in people’s life? What they found it is that, post Covid people were fed up of being sensible and of constantly complying with all the pressures inherent to modern life. People were craving something that could offer them release and for many of them having a McDonalds could offer that. So, McDonald’s represents that moment when you want to toss everything aside and do what feels good.

2. Which insights the creative team can use to develop the story? By researching behaviours, context, phraseology, and analysing the richness of the customer experience they found the big unlock about the invitation being unsaid: Mc Donald is so universal that it can be extended without saying a single word. These were the two deeper customers truths the creatives worked on.

Job to be Done for Branding and Communication

At the risk of sounding controversial, I see this campaign as a great execution of the Job to Be Done theory within the context of brand and communication. The theory, which usually informs product development or improvement, is based on the principle that, in the words of the founder Clayton Christensen :“We actually hire products to do things for us. And understanding what job we have to do in our lives for which we would hire a product is really the key to cracking this problem of motivating customers to buy what we’re offering. With few exceptions, every job people need or want to do has a social, a functional, and an emotional dimension.” It follows that, product and marketing people that want to be successful should focus on behaviours, on the causal driver behind a purchase that is what that person is trying to accomplish in a given circumstance rather than stopping at level of demographic and psychographic information and the correlation between variables. Going back to McDonald’s, we have seen that the campaign has been built around the insight that people are hiring McDonald's to provide relief to their stressful, overwhelming life. Moreover, by focusing on this specific “job” and going for a behavioural segmentation, they have been able to address a larger audience, much bigger than McDonald’s traditional target segment. Regardless of gender, social class, profession, age, we all crave a moment of release in our life and in that instant, we might want to ‘hire’ McDonald’s. This universal aspect is cleverly captured by one of the closing scenes of the ad, the one where everyone is on the stairs. Here we see people from multiple ranks, races and gender, from the builders, to the cleaning guys, to employees and executives all united by the desire to have a uplifting lunch break at Mc Donald's. The link with theory of the Job To be Done can be drawn by watching the milkshake story that Clayton Christensen used to describe it. The story is so good and so well told by Christensen, it's worth the four minutes it takes to listen to it. Although the context is different, the logic behind is similar.

We can all be heroes

Ethnography has been used here in a B2C context and by a big company. Nevertheless, the benefits of it can be reaped in a B2B setting as well and by any business regardless of the size. Additional support to this, comes from a recent episode of the The Marketing Meetup podcast by Joe Glover . In the “Marketing for small businesses” episode, prof. Mark Ritson, provided 10 pieces of practical advice that can help smaller brands grow. The necessity of doing ethnography has come up multiple times during the episode and for people that might feel intimidated by it, Mark provided a simpler definition, the polite version of which goes along the lines of : targeted ethnography is just a fancy way of saying – go and speak to your customers. Smaller brands that might not have the budget and the resources to go full on, can still get valuable insights to inform their marketing strategy and tactics, by spending time with their actual and potential customers. The combination of qualitative ( of which Ethnography is an example) and quantitative research makes easier to uncover both rational and emotional motives behind a purchase.

Rome wasn't built in a day

Neither big brand. Patience, knowledge, and love for the process can take you far. Sticking to the McDonald's campaign example, apart from the creative talent, the team work and the big budget, other elements that I saw as fundamental behind its execution are:

  • Years of investment in building brand equity and salience

  • Strategy before tactics

  • Market orientation

  • Ethnography Research/ Customer Intimacy

  • Behavioural segmentation

  • Optimisation around the insights/ "Job"

  • Optimal use of creativity

  • AI? not sure how big its role was, but I believe there's been lots of human intervention

The good news is that most of these tools are available to all companies, regardless of context and size. Of course, the actual execution and results will vary proportionally but it’s definitely worth the exploration. And if there’s one thing you want to take away from this story, it's: observe and talk to your customers! Your brand, your product, your marketing, your bottom line and of course your customers will highly benefit from it.

If any of the above has stirred some interest, do leave a comment or get in touch.

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