Exclusive: Relaunch of McKids--It's Not About Selling Toys and Clothes.

David Kiley

Contributed by senior correspondent Michael Arndt:

Oh, how easy it would be to harrumph about Ronald McDonald. According to the government’s Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, one in every six children is overweight today. One reason, of course, is that kids aren’t exercising as much as they should. But another is that they’re eating too much junk food. And for a growing number of kids, that includes more than an occasional Happy Meal or Big Mac. So when McDonald’s execs began trumpeting that they had hopped on the healthy-kids bandwagon, I wondered. My wonder turned to something less charitable when I heard what their fix was. No, McDonald’s hadn’t figured out how, finally, to get rid of those nasty trans-fats still used to fry its McNuggets. Instead, McDonald’s is about to relaunch its McKids line of toys—scooters, skateboards, bikes and trikes and such—aimed at getting children off their duffs to slim down.

Scarf down a burger and fries. Go home and pedal up and down the driveway on your McKids three-wheeler. McCalories in. McCalories out. As McDonald’s reminds us in its new ad campaign: “It’s what I eat and what I do. I’m lovin’ it.”
But after talking with McDonald’s marketing execs, and a sampling of outside marketing consultants, I think the new venture may not only be smart; it may be good, too. If it takes a McDonald’s decal and ads featuring a trim Ronald McDonald playing soccer or skateboarding to get children to exercise, why not? Besides, what’s the alternative? McDonald’s already has added carrot sticks as a substitute for fries in its Happy Meals. It’s got apple slices, too, and entrée-portion salads that actually taste good. Could you really expect the chain to go all-veggie on us and drop belt-busters like the Quarter Pounder with Cheese (510 calories) or the McGriddle breakfast sandwiches (420 to 560 calories) when those products have helped McDonald’s notch sales increases for 25 months in a row in the U.S.? We may tell pollsters we’re eating healthier foods these days. We lie.

The whole McKids thing is really spin, of course: McDonald’s execs concede the company isn’t all that interested in selling toys. As Larry Light, McDonald’s global chief marketing officer, told me, their motivation is to make Moms feel better about McDonald’s. Safe, fun, high-quality toys at a fair price will remind them that McDonald’s restaurants, too, are safe and fun, with high-quality food at fair prices. And the fact that Mom and kids alike will be glimpsing Ronald’s smiling mug every time they go into the rec room or garage and spot that McKids toy? Well, if it reminds everyone it’s time to go to McDonald’s again, so much the better.
Listen to Light yourself: “Our focus isn’t on the critics; it’s on the consumer. The consumer today is telling up they want more choice. They’re more concerned about their well-being. They want us to help them inspire their children. We think Ronald is going to help, to encourage kids to eat right and be more active. People are saying, ‘I want to stay forever young.’ At the same time we’re saying we want children to be more active, they’ve cut back physical education at schools. The fact is kids are more sedentary. This is good for McDonald’s. We’re the No. 1 operator of children’s play places in the world. Here’s a way for that play facility to be taken into the home or the park. They don’t have to be at McDonald’s to be in a McDonald’s Play Place.”
For McDonald’s, in fact, there seems to be no downside. Most little kids already know Ronald McDonald, and they like him and they like McDonald’s food. McKids, says Ken Harris, manager director at Cannondale Associates, a marketing and consumer-products consultancy, “is a way to extend the halo of McDonald’s to other products. This could be a brilliant stroke.” Sue Fogel, who heads the marketing department at DePaul University in Chicago, agrees—as long as McDonald’s is careful to target the under-10 set. That’s the cutoff when children start getting worldly enough to understand they’re being pitched.
And if the stuff doesn’t sell? McDonald’s has hired DIC Entertainment, a Burbank, Calif., outfit behind Inspector Gadget, Strawberry Shortcake, Care Bears and Trollz, as its worldwide licensing agent. The costs of the McKids line—manufacturing, distribution and marketing—won’t fall on McDonald’s. Rather, they’ll be picked up by whoever DIC signs up to make the stuff, and mass market retailers such as Wal-Mart, Target and Sears, which DIC Chairman and CEO Andy Heyward told me he hopes will start stocking the toys in the autumn of 2006. Says Harris: “If it doesn’t work, I don’t think people will stop going to restaurants because they didn’t like McKids.”
The question is: Will McKids really catch on? McDonald’s first launched McKids as a clothing line in 1987, sold through Sears, Roebuck & Co. The retailer dropped the line in 1991 after sales never measured up to projections. Wal-Mart Stores Inc. picked up the line in 1997, only to bag it in 2003. Today, you can find a smattering of McKids toys at Sears, Kmart, Toys “R” Us and Amazon.com. This time around, though, McDonald’s execs say it’ll work, because the company is fitting McKids into McDonald’s overall marketing theme. “I don’t know another brand on this planet better positioned to deliver this message,” says Light. “The child wins, McKids wins, McDonald’s wins.”
Yes, it’s easy to bash McDonald’s for stuffing our kids. And it’s easy to denounce the company for being so cynical in the way it’ll use McKids as a tool to boost our opinion of the burger giant—and its restaurant sales. But obesity and health really are not about just what we eat; they are about what we do, too. McDonald’s has got that right.

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