“McDonald’s can become the new American church, and it isn’t going to be open just on Sundays”.
In a nutshell
- McDonald’s history is a tale of two marketing philosophies: (1) culturally enacting the market for fast food at a societal level during the Kroc era; and (2) incrementally maintaining within category conventions from the 90’s to today.
- We often see the latter dominating the work of marketing, resulting in a short-term drive to chase trends and fulfill unmet customer needs. However, this is increasingly proving insufficient when we consider the number of categories that are no longer culturally aligned.
- Marketing today needs to have the longer term process of culturally enacting (or re-enacting) markets as its central function, to embed our brands and businesses in 21st Century cultural values.
These were the words of Ray Kroc, the man behind McDonald’s great expansion, and subject of the recent film The Founder. It is the story of how the McDonald brothers, Richard and Maurice, developed the first mechanised burger restaurant system which churned out ‘fast food’ in 30 seconds to the delight of its customers. And then, how the almost washed up salesman Kroc, upon discovering this revolutionary restaurant, convinced the cautious brothers to franchise. As the story goes, the greedy Kroc wrestles power and name off the naïve brothers, and the McDonald’s Corporation is born. Kroc goes on to make a fortune, while the brothers are left with comparatively very little for their original invention.
Watching The Founder it is easy to simplify the story in this way. While it is all true, as marketers we should not overlook Kroc’s vision for the McDonald’s restaurant’s role in American culture, and how this was culturally enacted, as being potentially McDonald’s greatest innovation. Sociologist George Ritzer famously coined the term the “McDonaldisation of society” which references the brother’s mechanised system and how speed and efficiency became the order of the day in the 20th Century.
However, another way of thinking about the McDonaldisation of society relates more to the work of Kroc and the McDonald’s Corp through to the 1980’s: how McDonald’s entered every taken for granted aspect of American life, and as another sociologist Marcus Giesler puts it, did in fact become something close to the new American church.
As marketers we have a lot to learn from the history of McDonald’s. From Kroc’s time to today, it is a tale of two marketing philosophies: (1) culturally enacting the market for fast food at a societal level during the Kroc era and carried on by the corporation into the 80’s; and (2) incrementally maintaining within category conventions from the 90’s to today.
In the modern day we often see the latter dominating the work of marketing, resulting in a short-term drive to chase trends and fulfill unmet customer needs within already established markets and categories. However, this is increasingly proving insufficient when we look at the bigger picture challenge of realigning the growing number of fundamental category-culture disconnects, as is currently the case for the fast food industry.
Marketing today needs to have the longer term process of culturally enacting (or re-enacting) markets as its central function – embedding our brands and businesses in 21st Century cultural values. For this we can learn from what Kroc and the McDonald’s Corp did with McDonald’s in the 20th Century and how this related to the societal values of that time.
The McDonaldisation of society: identifying a cultural opportunity and culturally enacting it
“Marketing is not the art of satisfying customers. It’s the art of culturally establishing markets.”
- Markus Giesler
There is a telling scene in The Founder where Kroc, having just witnessed McDonald’s new fast food experience and customers flocking to the restaurant, is driving through a small town main street and picturing the skyline. He saw it dominated by crosses and flags, but could also see space in this landscape for a new cultural symbol – the Golden Arches. What Kroc understood in this moment was that there was an emerging culture that could value speed and efficiency over everything else; so much so that McDonald’s restaurants could replace the dining room table. And when served up with the wholesome McDonald’s name, he saw that McDonald’s could become a cultural icon for the times.
The first part of his genius was recognising this cultural opportunity; the second, culturally enacting it. To do so meant doing something unfamiliar to most of us as marketers today – not relying on knowing what people will do based on listening to consumers, and instead taking a bet on what people could do based on an understanding of emerging cultural values. There was no clear unmet need for fast food per se, but rather a latent cultural opportunity in a society that was beginning to value speed and ease.
Kroc and the McDonald’s Corporation leveraged this latent cultural opportunity with the Golden Arches entering into every suburb, in our clubs, and even into our birthday parties and academic institutions. The pre-1990’s McDonald’s restaurants were what Giesler called “a bold cultural creative” creating innovations beyond the category that truly ‘McDonaldised society’. The innovations were all on-code for an increasingly rushed culture. For example, McDonald’s getting into the business of hosting chaotic children’s birthday parties became a welcome new option for parents; and giving McDonald’s vouchers to kids after sports games served as a reminder to mum of an easy lunch option as she taxied her children from game to game. By the late 1980’s, the McDonaldisation became so complete that there was even a time when it was sacrilege to not have your child’s birthday at McDonald’s. But that was all about to change with a major cultural shift.