A Conversation with McDonald’s Tariq Hassan on ‘Brand Performance’ Marketing + The Future of Consumer Empowerment

February 12, 2023




The most important building blocks for success in our post pandemic world continue to be largely centered around sharpening CX, reimagining loyalty and doing whatever can be done to best empower the customer. While many talk about these things, few have the goods to walk the walk and human-led innovation remains a bit more buzzword than reality.

Tariq Hassan's headshot

A Conversation with McDonald’s Tariq Hassan on ‘Brand Performance’ Marketing + The Future of Consumer Empowerment

With that all in mind, I wanted to speak to a visionary marketer who has spent his entire career leading some of the world’s top brands toward best-in-class innovation, value delivery and cultural convergence.

Tariq Hassan is the Chief Marketing and CX Officer of McDonald’s USA. He’s spent much of his career building iconic brands such as Petco, Bank of America, and HP. Following is a recap of our conversation, which comes on the heels of this evening’s game day spot from the brand – bringing to life a universal truth (what McDonald’s calls a ‘fan truth’) with real fans’ experiences and traditions with the brand:

Billee Howard: McDonald’s had lost its swagger for a minute. Now, you guys just had a stellar 2022, largely, I’m sure, because of a lot of your contributions. In all seriousness, what do you think was responsible for that in general? And how do you think you played a role?

Tariq Hassan: I think I’m a recipient of work that started before me. If you go back to your original point of the challenges McDonald’s faced, call it pre-2017, I think it’s a story that we all know, what happens when you are not as focused on the customer. The business was focused on driving transactions: too many offers, over-focus on promotion, and limited time offers on the menu. Essentially, we were focusing on ourselves vs building a relationship with the customer.

What Morgan [Flatley] did when she was in the US CMO role, was to reestablish relevance for the brand again. When you think about what we did with Travis Scott, and our famous orders, it was a rediscovery of how you can drive transactional behavior in a way that actually brings value to both customers and the brand.

When I joined McDonald’s, I saw two critical opportunities. One was how to keep that brand connection going. The challenge I set for the team was, great, you called culture. Culture is calling you back and now what? Careful what you ask for, because when you get the return call, you have to answer and keep them on the line. You’ve got to stay connected, and that’s not so easy anymore. The second thing that excited me about the role was the scale of the company… we were a few months in with our new loyalty program, and the scale of data we have access to gets really exciting. You can start to create a real picture of your customer.

Now we are in a model that is speaking fan to fan, and it is the entire focus of everything we do. There’s not an activation that we’ve done during this brand transformation that wasn’t rooted in a fan insight or a fan truth. And that’s the power of this brand… everyone has their own unique story and connection to it. And when you put your ear to the customer and really listen to those things, there’s magic in their truths and they are responding.

Howard: What you just said to me that I wanted to lean into is this confluence of things taking place right now that make things so much more challenging. We’ve talked about consumer control for, I don’t know, almost a decade, and it’s just gotten more and more intense. As we enter Web3, that will only continue to intensify. What are your thoughts on how brands should be approaching the evolving age of consumer control?

Hassan: That question almost implies we have a say in the matter… I like to think of it more as, how do I embrace the growing consumer control over my brand and actually empower my team to lean into that, rather than fight it.

It’s a nuance, but I think it’s a really important one, and it shows up in a variety of different ways – such as in how customers respond to items on McDonald’s menu. Do we have the courage to actually acknowledge the truth of what they’re telling us in terms of their interest and remove those items they don’t?

It also shows up in the way that we talk about “sharing the pen” with our fans. For our recent campaigns, if you look at the “fan truths” that inspire our creative work, it’s all about being willing to pivot the brand towards what fans are telling you is important to them and allowing them to participate. We’re figuring out the unique ways that our brand can fit authentically into their lives. When you’re doing it from the perspective of control, you don’t necessarily hear things the same way and you don’t necessarily allow yourself to challenge things and change things in the same way.

Howard: Anything else you wanted to speak to about related to consumer empowerment as digital transformation continues?

Hassan: I think our category has a natural dimension to it that requires us to empower our fans, that actually helps. If you look at the QSR customer, or frankly, fast casual customers, they aren’t loyal to anybody. Which means you have to get up day in and day out to make brand value meaningful to them. That’s actually a positive for us. As a marketer, I also personally believe when you talk about that shift of control, when you get that kind of compression, it can actually create requirements that can lead to really great creativity. Why? Because you’re in an environment where you are forced to accept your reality and allow yourself to not only embrace it, but lean in to it. It creates a great creative tension – which I believe is key to great work.

Howard: There’s so much data available but few insights. How can we use the best of data, technology, AI etc. to know our customer better, in a more empathetic way, that creates human-led relationship oriented experiences? How do you think that we can avail ourselves best of all that’s available to us to do so?

Hassan: Your first point is the biggest one. My head of US insights would tell you we are not short on data. We have more data than we know what to do with. So, the question becomes, which data is most important and how do you use that data?

That starts with recognizing that not every interesting data point has a purpose. It forces you to ask yourself if your strategy and objectives are clear, so that you have a construct for thinking about how to use that data. This is where the scale of our customer base becomes really helpful because with the speed in which we’ve been able to go from basic transactional data to much more multi-dimensional data, combined with the third party data, you can create much more robust customer portraits. It allows you to have a focused strategy you’re optimizing. What’s different is rather than constantly firefighting and constantly changing your strategy, you get to spend your time focused on how you execute inside the strategy. That to me is the perfect place for marketing to live.

The second piece is, do you even understand what value looks like for your customer and are you using data to create that value? I don’t participate in the brand versus performance marketing debate. I believe in ‘brand performance’, so I believe you can achieve the objectives and even greater long-term results than a pure performance based approach. But, if you don’t wrap it in a brand, you’re going to be playing catch up when other brands have similar offerings.

We believe the role of data is to create value, and the role of value is to create a relationship. Our Camp McDonald’s promotion from last summer is a great example. It was a month-long digital acquisition program… but what we delivered for fans was much bigger. If you were to speak to a customer who experienced it, they would tell you they got to experience unique menu hacks, merch and even weekly concerts in the app. We gave them a brand experience that happened to be through our app and allowed us to meet our acquisition goals.

Howard: So, last question. What’s up next regarding tackling data and evolving CX?

Hassan: As we look ahead, we will always be a brand that provides affordable solutions and great value. But I’m excited that we will be able to use our data to deliver that value in a more personalized, unique way, that makes our fans feel like we know them and what they want. So, we’ll remain focused on understanding what our fans care about and the unique way McDonald’s can deliver to them brand benefits that strengthen our relationship beyond just transactional.

The Cactus Flea Market collaboration was a great example of what I am talking about. At the end of the day, if you look at that program, we created a rampant connection with our fans that was built upon a true insight about recapturing that feeling of child-like joy of enjoying a Happy Meal as a kid, and wanting to recapture that childhood lost as an adult.

But inside the box was a choice of a Big Mac combo meal or a Chicken McNugget combo meal, the same combo meals you could order today. But by wrapping that twist on the familiar around an emotional experience that gave them access – with a unique piece of art and culture – we fed something deeper than enjoying our delicious food.

Post by Billee Howard

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