Don’t blame the clown for your accountant’s tears

The brand may be a ‘maiden’ or an ‘enchantress’, but if the product and marketing aren’t up to scratch, a smiling brand icon won’t solve anything, says Sean Brierley

After almost 40 years of bringing unadulterated mediocrity to millions of children all over the world Ronald McDonald is joining the Tetley Tea Folk and the PG Tips chimps in the advertising icon knacker’s yard.

Poor old Ronnie is being crawfished from television and will eke out a meagre existence as the dead-eyed host of children’s parties, squirting water, honking horns and pulling plastic flowers from his tattered cuffs.

But before we reach for the never-ending hankies, it is worth reflecting why it took McDonald’s so long to can the clown. After all, its market share has been falling for a number of years.

Ronald McDonald appeared in 1963, the year Lady Chatterley’s Lover was decriminalised and the Beatles released their first LP. He represented what adults like to think childhood is all about. He is safe, benign, unthreatening and dull. Even young children hate this adult view of them.

It was always an awkward, cumbersome device, because it said nothing about the product or service. The fun family icon was also largely inappropriate. Though families make up a significant proportion of the chain’s clientele, the core business is teenagers and building workers.

If McDonald’s wants to replace Ronald, maybe it should speak to Young & Rubicam executive planning director Simon Silvester, who recently offered this advice in a national newspaper to marketers planning to develop brand characters.

Silvester refers to archetypes – a half-baked theory developed by Carl Jung – as a way to get inside consumer’s heads. The quote is lengthy, but worthwhile. He is not joking:

“A brand can be focused more effectively using a new process called archetyping. Brands are mapped using image data, on to a space depicting the archetypal roles – hero, maiden, magician, companion and so on, that have defined human storytelling since classical times. If this process, for instance, reveals that your toiletry brand is at its core a ‘Maiden’, then it is likely that you will have success in differentiating it using values such as purity and innocence. If on the other hand, the analysis reveals it is an ‘Enchantress’, then you would be more successful by using imagery of seduction and intrigue. Archetyping works because consumers already have archetypes in their heads – they are a fundamental part of human nature. Archetyping can make marketing spend much more effective. Why spend marketing money establishing a character, when the character is in the target audience’s heads already?”

There you go: pop your brand in the machine and, before Merlin can say “Archetypacadabra”, you have your icon – McMordred the Quarterpounder.

This was part of a ten-point plan to woo consumers, especially older ones, who are apparently growing increasingly immune to advertising. Nothing new here. Account planning was invented by agencies in the Sixties to convince clients that consumers are more savvy than ever before, and what they needed to do was spend more money on more sophisticated advertising.

Last Christmas, I discovered that my mother, who is in her 50s, had switched from Tetley to PG Tips. My family was raised on Tetley tea. My mum’s kitchen includes Tea Folk memorabilia that she lets her grandkids play with.

So what caused this disloyalty? An account planner might suggest that my mother, as a Northerner, was attracted to the “northern” Tetley advertising and was put off by PG Tips’ cockney chimps. But regional profiles had no bearing on my mother’s decision to ditch Tetley.

The real reason for her switch had nothing to do with advertising, or icons. The reason, she says, was because, PG Tips tastes better.

Two years ago, she had received a PG Tips sample through the door. She liked the brew so much, she bought the product. It turns out that she never cared about the advertising, or the carefully constructed brand values – she liked stronger tea and a shorter brew-up time.

Though this anecdote is not very scientific, it does indicate two things. Firstly, brand switching does take place among over-35s. Secondly, no matter how strong advertising icons are, consumers are more interested in the product.

For McDonald’s, the product is the restaurant itself. The company’s global success had nothing to do with smart advertising, and everything to do with the concept of fast food. However, the marketing failures do have something to do with the advertising that reflected McDonald’s hubris and swaggering overconfidence.

Its attempt to colonise everyday language bred resentment. No wonder McDonald’s came to symbolise American imperialism. The whole “Mc” product concept introduced a degree of artificiality to everything. Foods from chicken to ice cream were prefixed with “Mc”.

Ronald reflected this problem. Consumers got the feeling that, like the clown, the food was covered in make-up. The images of the food above the counter often bore no relation to the mass-produced burger in your hand.

Over the years, Ronald McDonald has come to represent everything parents hate about McDonald’s – plastic tables, synthetic seats and candy-floss colours all adding to the artificiality.

Whenever an advertising icon is consigned to oblivion, newspapers – often encouraged by agency propaganda – exaggerate its significance. A couple of months ago, The Guardian even attributed a dip in Tetley teabag sales to the decision to axe the Tea Folk. But blaming icons causes many marketers to avoid sorting out the bigger problems with their marketing.

Sean Brierley is a former deputy editor of Marketing Week and author of the Advertising Handbook

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