Online Extra: Marketing in the "the Age of I"

McDonald's marketing chief explains how its promotions aim to be personalized, yet refer to the groups consumers belong to

Last September M. Lawrence Light, McDonald's (MCD ) global chief marketing officer, unveiled the burger giant's new ad theme, "I'm lovin' it." Since then, McDonald's has boasted an unbroken string of monthly sales increases. Light concedes the gains cannot be traced to any single effort -- new products such as the McGriddle breakfast sandwiches and entrée salads deserve much of the credit. Still, McDonald's TV commercials, with their hip-hop sound and cameos by Justin Timberlake, were big hits with young audiences.

The prime-time spots were only a start, however. Now, Light wants to turn everything he can into an ad for McDonald's. He's pushing the Oak Brook (Ill.) chain to open clothing shops so kids will walk around in T-shirts with the Golden Arches logo, just as they already do with Old Navy or Disney (DIS ). He envisions a deal with the National Basketball Assn. to play the five-note tagline of the "I'm lovin' it" ad in the stadium every time a player shoots a three-pointer. He's even toying with making the jingle available over the Internet so it could be downloaded as a mobile-phone ring tone.

McDonald's will continue to use broadcast TV to get out its message. But Light believes every consumer-product company must exploit new vehicles to reach today's customers, who no longer want to lumped into a mass market but identify themselves as belonging to their own special groups.

Light, 62, is an ad-industry veteran, starting at BBDO in 1965. He joined McDonald's in 2002, coming over from Arcature LLC, his own brand-marketing consultancy in Chicago. He recently talked with BusinessWeek Senior Correspondent Michael Arndt about marketing in what Light calls "the age of I." Following are edited excerpts of their conversation.

Q: It used to be pretty simple to market things in the U.S. People bought things en masse. Goods were produced en masse. And the media were mass media. These days everything seemed atomized. Do you think that the mass market is a thing of the past?

A:

The answer is yes. We're a global marketer. We're a big marketer. We're not a mass marketer. I don't think the mass market ever existed, but we didn't have the ability to reach the individual markets that did exist. What has changed is technology has facilitated our ability to reach people on a more customized, more personalized basis. That's a revolution.

Q: But is this only a technological change?

A:

It's more than that. What has also changed significantly is the values of the market. If you go back 40 years, people wanted to be identified as normal. So they wanted the most popular car and the most popular color. From the consumer point of view, we've had a change from "I want to be normal" to "I want to be special."

We've even seen that change. Go back about 20 years to the famous "me decade" or "me generation," and it's all about me. Well, today our research shows "only me" has become "lonely me." People who don't know the name of their neighbors then go home and join a chat room. We've labeled this new era internally as moving from the "age of me" to the "age of I."

By that we mean: I'm an individual, but I don't want to feel alone. To what group do I belong? Our creative challenge, our marketing challenge, our brand challenge is how to treat people as an individual without having them feel they're so unique, they're an only child.

Q: How do you market in this "the age of I"?

A:

We don't believe it's prime-time TV vs. an alternative. We have shifted our mix, however. If we look over just the last half-dozen years, our media mix has shifted in the U.S. from two-thirds on prime-time network TV to two-thirds not on prime-time network.

Why haven't we shifted more? We go back to this "age of I" concept. We believe that while people want to be talked to on this individualized basis, they like the reinforcement of seeing that commonality message in the so-called mass media. Getting that balance right is what's critical. It's not a war between the two.

Q: Give me an example of where you're shifting your marketing budget to.

A:

We've just launched the beginning of McKids. The first store just opened in China. There will be 25 McKids stores there. It's got a line of toys, a line of clothes, a line of videos, all directed at young kids. The first one will hit the U.S. next year.

We view fashion not just as clothes but as a statement of personal style. If people can walk around with a shirt that says Abercrombie & Fitch (ANF ) or Old Navy, that's a billboard. Let's view it as a medium, not just clothes. It's a whole new way to reach our customers.

Q: How do you distinguish marketing from advertising? It sounds to me like that line has been blurred.

A:

This is maybe the most important question you've asked. The old days of advertising vs. promotion, vs. merchandising, vs. display, vs. events -- that's a mindset that has to disappear. It's all promotion, and we define promotion the way the dictionary does, to promote to a higher level, to elevate.

The purpose is to elevate the brand perception in the customer's mind. If it carries the brand name, it should promote the brand. A T-shirt is a medium. A food package is a print ad, it's not just a container. We think about a store design as outdoor advertising.

Q: So what's next?

A:

I think this "age of I" is our biggest opportunity and our biggest challenge. This idea that people want to be individuals and want to belong at the same time is a huge concept. It used to be if you belonged to a group, you gave up your individuality. You got homogenized. Then, it was, I want to be me, only me. You remember that era.

Today, that's viewed as selfish. The modern consumers want the best of both worlds: I like the family feeling of belonging to a bigger group, but I shouldn't have to sacrifice my individuality in order to feel I belong. This is just as big a challenge for politics and society as it is for marketing. We believe that the global marketers who figure it out will have a huge advantage.

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