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  • Classic Campaigns: The Reinvention of Ronald McDonald
  • Matt Ritter (bio)

In the time it takes to read this article, McDonald’s Corporation will have sold more than $150 million worth of food.1 Massive sales like that do not just happen overnight. The company’s humble beginnings in California in 1948 have blossomed into a worldwide empire thanks to savvy marketing techniques that included the introduction of the company mascot, Ronald McDonald, in 1963. Ronald McDonald has been an integral key to the company’s success, specifically in how it markets to children. Ronald is now recognized by more than 99 percent of U.S. consumers,2 testifying to the triumph of this classic marketing campaign. But the true success of the campaign lies in the company’s willingness to adapt to meet head-on the changing tide of America’s food consumption appetite. The reincarnation of Ronald from a hamburger-touting pitchman to fitness-promoting mascot did not happen overnight. McDonald’s executives recognized that without drastic changes, the brand was in serious trouble. This article explores the history of Ronald McDonald and how the company was able to remain a market leader while reinventing its image to a finicky customer base.

The year was 1990. A line of customers outside a newly opened McDonald’s franchise stretched four-wide for nearly a mile.3 They had never tasted a cheeseburger or French fries, and curiosity gripped them. This location was unlike any other; it was the first such restaurant to open in Moscow. The Quintessential American Brand4 had officially transformed itself into a “superclean, standardized, computerized food production machine that also makes people happy”5 and was reaching the zenith of expansion into new markets. Dick and Mac McDonald opened the first restaurant in San Bernardino, California, in 1948 with “Speedee” the hamburger man as the logo.6 Six years later, barroom piano player-turned milkshake machine salesman,7 Ray Kroc, visited the location to investigate why the two brothers were purchasing so many of his products. After seeing the operation firsthand he convinced the two to allow him to open a franchise in Des Plaines, Illinois, a year later. In 1961 he bought out the McDonald brothers for $2.7 million and replaced the Speedee logo with the company’s now iconic Golden Arches.8

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Figure 1.

Original McDonald’s in San Bernardino, CA

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Figure 2.

Speedee, the original McDonald’s mascot

Kroc revolutionized the fast-food experience, opening locations across the country and turning the dining experience into a ritualized religious service of sorts. This ritualizing force is one that unified the American culture.9 Everywhere Americans travelled, the McDonald’s experience was the same. The food tasted the same, and the restaurants were impeccably clean. Kroc patrolled his restaurants secretly in plain clothes, inspecting to ensure they conformed to his standards. He once walked into a franchise and lambasted the manager after finding gum on a patio and cigarette butts on the playground. He ordered the manager to mop the floor, insisting that he would do it himself if it was not done instantly.10 By 1959, 100 restaurants had opened across the U.S. Less than a decade later, restaurants popped up in Canada and Puerto Rico. Fred Turner succeeded Kroc as chairman in 1977.11 Today, McDonald’s operates 33,000 restaurants in 119 countries, employing 1.7 million people.12

The idea of Ronald McDonald was born in 1963 in Washington, D.C., following the cancellation of the Bozo the Clown television program. McDonald’s franchise owner Oscar Goldstein had been sponsoring the program as a way to promote his restaurants.13 When the show went off the air, Goldstein’s advertising executive, Barry Klein, had to find another way to promote the restaurants.14 He turned to Willard Scott, the actor who had been portraying Bozo on the show. Scott had been heavily promoting the hamburgers on the show and also attended openings of new restaurants in the D.C. area. The popularity of Bozo had parents and children lining up by the thousands at area...