Save the clown

May 20, 2011

In an open letter to McDonald’s CEO James A. Skinner, 550 health professional and organizations asked McDonald’s to stop making Happy Meals® and to retire Ronald McDonald. Many of the letter signers believe the clown entices children to eat McDonald’s food that is high in saturated fats.

Ronald, introduced in 1963, is an important brand asset, almost as closely linked to McDonald’s as its Golden Arches. Since 1974, he has been generating good-will as the front man for Ronald McDonald House Charities, the company’s non-profit organization that provides lodging and support for the families of children receiving critical medical care away from home. Companies usually pay millions of dollars for this kind of positive brand equity. McDonald’s should not walk away from it.

Beyond brand value, McDonald’s can also capitalize on its current food trends toward healthier eating. McDonald’s menu has become more sophisticated, with lattes and Angus burgers, and more health-conscious with fruit oatmeal, salads and smoothies. The retail experience has improved with many restaurants being revamped, McCafes built and WiFi offered. In the age of television programs such as “The Biggest Loser” and a foodie culture, Ronald McDonald could take on the mantle of leading a healthier life style.

McDonald’s could build on Ronald’s equity and improve its image at the same time. The corporation certainly has the resources to create a program to encourage kids to be physically active with Ronald as the mascot. Or perhaps a non-profit would be interested in co-branding if the clown promotes good nutrition.

Instead of being a brand liability, Ronald McDonald can be a key component in the company telling a new story. Yes, the chain is known for convenience, consistency and being kid-friendly. But, with its recent changes, the brand can also now claim to be modern and healthier. And the clown can help the restaurant chain realign its brand to its business strategy.

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