The Golden Arches. You don’t even have to say its name and the image pops into your head. Hamburgers are as much of a thread of American fabric as the Star Spangled Banner, fireworks, and Diet Coke. Since childhood we’ve been trained to recognize those glorious yellow beauties reaching towards the sky, glowing with great pride and joy as a shining symbol of capitalism. Unknowingly, we have also been learning how to experience a corporate brand from one of the best in the business. My last blog was about building your personal brand, which is something that most marketers forget to do for themselves, but now is our chance to experience a film’s example of corporate branding.
My firm is celebrating its 20th anniversary and is excited for the opportunity to design a new look for the year. Some call it a “brand refresh” but after watching this film the idea of a brand refresh doesn’t seem to mean the same thing. The challenge I have on a regular basis when speaking to non-marketers (a.k.a. “sane people”) is explaining that your brand is how the world experiences you. How do you greet people at the door, answer a call, what does your email signature say? A brand is even more than an experience, what do people remember about you? If you were a menu item at McDonalds, would you be chosen, and by whom? Psychologists have written books, given seminars, and made whole careers studying what motivates people to part with their money. Ray Kroc solved that problem in 1955.
The film starts off with the same beginning as every success story - with failure. Ray Kroc was a failed door to door salesman (you may have to look up what those were). The film depicts his story as a failing restaurant equipment salesman that spends more time on the road than he does at home with his wife. A routine sales call takes him to San Bernardino where he meets Dick and Mac McDonald, two brothers who have created a revolutionary system, the “Speedee Service System”, to make fresh hamburgers customer ready in less than one minute. Dick was the inventor of the two brothers, he created the Golden Arches, created the machinery and layout needed to operate their system, and even created the prototype for the iconic mid-century building style. Being blown away by this production system, and surprised that the brothers have not been able to successfully replicate the system into a franchise opportunity, he offers to act as their franchising partner for a percentage of profits. The brothers have their reservations since they strive to maintain quality control and keep things simple and safe, but the opportunity to share their ideas with the country seems to good to be true. So they agree and Kroc gets to work opening McDonald’s franchises throughout his home state of Illinois.
The relationship between Kroc and the McDonald’s brothers was a strenuous one, as Kroc’s ambitions appeared to outweigh the brothers passion for their operations and quality control. Both parties struggled with maintaining costs. Kroc responded to these situations by starting a management and franchise training program to train store managers and owner/operators, starting a real estate company to purchase and lease restaurant realty to the franchise owners. To keep things running, he secretly opened a second mortgage on his house. He believed so much in the idea of McDonald’s that he gave everything he had, lost a marriage, and ultimately cut the founding brothers out of the business entirely by buying them out. He is portrayed as visionary and villainous, revolutionary and ruthless (and brilliantly acted by the amazingly talented Michael Keaton, who never gives a bad performance), and uncompromising in his drive to succeed.
The film ends at the height of Ray Kroc’s success, preparing for a speech being given in front of President Nixon. I think we all know how the story ends for us though, probably not much different than how I first learned about Ray Kroc - from that metal plaque at every McDonald’s restaurant that you saw as you waited for your Happy Meal. I had always wondered who he was, and why his name was Kroc when the restaurant was called McDonald’s. History, as they say, is written by the winners.
Ray Kroc may have been a failed salesman, a lackluster entrepreneur, and nowhere near being an inventor, but he was good at something - corporate branding. When my brother was a toddler, he could name every fast food restaurant sign we drove past, and he couldn’t even read yet. My family thought that he was very clever, and he was, but not as clever as the corporate branding strategies employed by those companies. Where this really blew out my lightbulb, so to speak, was in design school when we learned about marketing and advertising. I realized that my clever little brother had recognized the fast food signs because they had been intentionally designed to be instantly recognizable. It was all part of the branding.
Kroc also realized that branding is more than just your logo, or your font or colors, it is the culmination of the experiences leading up to the point of purchase, and everything before and after. Kroc is seen in the film sweeping the floors outside, monitoring the menu for unapproved item additions, keeping smokers out of the area (and this was the 1950s), and even confronting his friends who have invested in their own franchises that the menu items weren’t made to specifications. As anyone who has ever eaten at McDonald’s will tell you (and I’m guessing most of us) a standard McDonald’s hamburger has: “two pickles, a pinch of onions, and a precise shot of ketchup and mustard.” It has been that way since Dick and Mac McDonald created them in San Bernardino, and the basic recipe has never changed. Kroc understood the bigger picture that McDonald’s restaurants would be reliable, uniformed, each location a node of a wider network where traveling Americans would always know what to expect.
That instant recognition would attract a regular family-friendly customer base, and based on the billions served, Kroc’s idea worked. In fact, it worked so well that it has become the model by which other massive fast food restaurant chains operate, including Chick-Fil-A, Starbucks, Sonic, and Wendys, to name a few. Each major fast food chain may have their own idioms and marketing successes (Wendy’s Twitter Roasts are a sight to behold) but the essential model that fast food was based on began with Ray Kroc. It could be surmised that his product was less about food and more about consistency, which is the underlying functional element of all corporate branding. While restaurants may change their logo for the olympics, or Pride month, or release special cup designs for the winter holidays, the recognition is still here, deliberately lurking in the back of your mind and subconsciously affecting your purchasing habits.
Kroc says it best himself in one of the final scenes of the film, in a private men’s room conversation between him and Dick McDonald. His impetus for not only becoming a part of the Speedee System, but for making it his own in the end. "It's not just the system Dick, it's the name. That glorious name McDonald's. It can be anything you want it to be, it's limitless, it's wide open, it sounds like America." Nothing I can think of sums up corporate branding any better than that.
Although McDonald’s began on a measure of consistency, its international expansions have created a variety of items most Americans don’t even realize that there exists at McDonald’s. You may have tried a few, but you can learn more about them here. Click on the image below to vote on your favorite international McDonald's offerings.