In the lead-up to the rollout of its new Happy Meals, which now automatically include apple slices and kid-sized portions of French fries, McDonald’s raised its brand perceptions among parents with young children, according to a new study from YouGov BrandIndex.
Ted Marzilli, senior vice president of New York-based BrandIndex, said McDonald’s improvement from its lowest parental “buzz score” of 10.3 on Feb. 10, to the 26.5 figure on March 5, when it announced the rollout of new Happy Meals, is “well beyond statistically significant.” BrandIndex considers any movement greater than four to five points as meaningful.
Watch McDonald’s new Happy Meal commercial; story continues below
BrandIndex calculates its buzz score by surveying 5,000 American consumers each weekday and asking, “Have you heard anything about this brand in the past two weeks, and was it positive or negative?” Negative responses are subtracted from positive responses, and a moving average is calculated on a scale from negative 100 to positive 100, with zero denoting neutral buzz for a brand.
The research firm broke out buzz scores for parents with young children living at home and noticed an increase in parental buzz scores for McDonald’s, due in large part to its Happy Meal initiative, the company said.
“Part of the recent improvement I think is because of anticipation,” Marzilli said. “The Happy Meals are ready to go nationally, and McDonald’s is launching a national campaign, but the announcement was made about eight months ago.”
Last July 26, when McDonald’s announced it would alter its Happy Meals to meet stricter nutrition guidelines, the brand’s parental buzz score was 17.8 and stayed at a plateau around that level for months, before falling steadily beginning in late September. The brand began 2011 with a much lower parent buzz score of 8.2, having just been sued the month before by the Center for Science in the Public Interest.
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McDonald’s size generates a lot of buzz about its menu news for two reasons, Marzilli said. First, the brand is one of the biggest advertisers in the restaurant industry and is able to put tens of millions of dollars behind a Happy Meal campaign. Also, whenever the biggest brand in the quick-service category makes a move, people talk about it, even negatively.
Watch an ad promoting apples in McDonald’s Happy Meals; story continues below
“It’s the disadvantage and the advantage of being the biggest brand in the industry,” Marzilli said. “When the restaurant industry is criticized, McDonald’s is held up as the poster child. But when a brand with this much clout takes the initiative on something [like children’s health], it gets a lot of credit as well. In this case, it’s having a good impact.”
Among parents, McDonald’s March 5 score was higher than the collective score for the 13 largest quick-service brands in its peer group, he noted. Its 26.5 value compared favorably with a 22.7 parental buzz score for the quick-service peer group, which includes Burger King, Wendy’s, Pizza Hut, Arby’s and others.
McDonald’s other kid-focused promotion in 2012, its Champions of Play tie-in with its Olympic Games sponsorship, did not drive buzz scores with parents nearly as much as Happy Meal news did. The chain announced Champions of Play Jan. 13 and tallied a buzz score of 19 that day, but over the next month, McDonald’s bested that score only two days before steadily falling to its 2012 low of 10.3 on Feb. 10.
Marzilli speculated that Olympic fever really has not caught on with parents taking their children to McDonald’s, perhaps because the Summer Games are still four months away and taking place in London, not the United States.
“It’s a good initiative, because McDonald’s has tied into the last several Olympics, but in the short term it doesn’t seem to have resonated all that much with parents, particularly in the context of the most recent numbers,” he said. “If you’re a parent and your kids are asking to go to McDonald’s, if the brand improves the content of the Happy Meals, that’s going to really improve their effect on your kids. So it’s not surprising that Happy Meals have the bigger relevance with parents.”
Oak Brook, Ill.-based McDonald’s operates or franchises more than 33,000 restaurants worldwide, including more than 14,000 locations in the United States.