In an ongoing attempt to rebrand and seduce those pesky millennials, McDonald’s made its first official sponsorship debut at the music, film and interactive conference in the States, South by Southwest (SXSW).
SXSW has traditionally been a hard market to crack. Brands can often get lost in a haze of free food, booze, big business and hip hop. A marketing strategy that felt like a great brainstorm amongst employees, can actually turn out to be the worst thing that’s ever happened, such as the ‘Homeless Hotspot’ incident at SXSW in 2012 where homeless people were turned into wifi spots.
So when McDonald’s announced its SXSW debut it was met with equal parts criticism and excitement. “The usual SXSW crowd is not the (McDonald’s) crowd. Attendees are usually edgier, healthier, more techy, definitely more millennial,” Wendy Liebmann, CEO of the WSL Strategic Retail consultant firm, told MarketWatch.com.
Despite the backlash it received when announcing it wasn’t paying the bands performing, McDonald’s goal was simple. Atif Rafiq, chief digital officer of McDonald’s, posted that the fast food chain was “planning to showcase how we’re using digital to enhance the consumer experience, and naturally add true value and reduce the inherent frictions for attendees that inevitably occur because of the event’s sheer size”. No pressure.
McDonald’s pulled all the tricks out of the Happy Meal to appeal to the hipster crowds. The golden arches were everywhere. A private party on Saturday night with indie music (note: the bands ended up being paid) and maple-bacon bourbon old fashioned cocktails. Throughout the weekend, McDonald’s had food trucks with free all-day breakfast for the hungover, a fleet of workers pouring free hot coffee for the tired, free Shamrock Shakes for St. Patrick’s Day and free ‘wi-fry’. Proving that no matter how expensive their designer glasses and skinny jeans are, the SXSW crowd loves free food.
Not only were they overrunning the food market, McDonald’s wanted to be seen upping its game in the digital and tech space. Throughout the festival, it held three Shark Tank styled sessions to give startups a 15 minute opportunity to pitch their innovation to McDonald’s digital executives. There were three pitch categories:
Category 1: Reinventing the restaurant experience
Snowshoe, a company that prints 3D pieces of plastic that works with your smartphone to pull up digital content, showed how McDonald’s could use its tech within its own kiosks. McDonald’s could store 3-D printed chips that work with smartphones, without the need for a mobile app, to display digital content and web games from Happy Meal products.
Category 2: Advancing content creation and co-creation
Event marketing agency HelloSponsor won with the pitch to modernise event sponsorship. The startup company provides a middle man for McDonald’s to connect with local events, giving the brand access to discover and measure all related event media, from print to social, to contract negotiations of sponsorships.
Category 3: Mobilising the transportation and delivery revolution
Walc won its pitch with a mobile direction app for walkers that uses landmarks to guide people to their destination. So instead of “turn right onto George Street”, users will see “turn right at the next McDonald’s”.
Each category winner won prizes including $1,000 travel package and a mention on McDonald’s social pages. The overall winning team gets a trip to brainstorm their idea with McDonald’s big guns at its headquarters in Oak Brook, Illinois. Snowshoe’s pitch was the overall winner.
Rafiq said that McDonald’s presence during the festival had been a successful one, “It definitely pushed our thinking first and foremost,” he said, according to Bloomberg Business. “You start thinking about how technology can change everything from customer experience in the restaurant, make it more convenient, make it more fun. I saw ideas today that push our thinking.”
McDonald’s hasn’t confirmed if it will return to SXSW in 2016.