This is a story about McDonald’s, marketing, and Generation Z. Can we do a short history lesson first? I promise, there’s a payoff.

McDonald’s, dating back to 1940 or 1953 depending on how you count, is one of the few companies of any kind that managed to build a following with every generation since its early days:

  • The Greatest Generation. These were the World War II veterans and their families who wanted a peaceful post-war existence. Early McDonald’s slogans and campaigns played to it.
  • The Silent Generation. They were the ones who grew up just as McDonald’s did. McDonald’s had lots of campaigns about eating out with family, and how McDonald’s could be “the closest thing to home.”
  • The Baby Boomers. We all know them. McDonald’s drew them in with their “You Deserve a Break Today” campaigns from the 1960s to the 1980s and other slogans and campaigns.
  • Generation X. Sure, they’re kind of the forgotten generation, but McDonald’s didn’t overlook them. If you grew up wanting your birthday party at McDonald’s, and you can tell me all the ingredients of a Big Mac in jingle format (“Two all-beef patties, special sauce, lettuce, cheese…”), this might be you.
  • Millennials. They tried all kinds of stuff here. My favorite example is from about five years ago, when McDonald’s ran ads with Mindy Kaling that didn’t even mention McDonald’s.

With that we get to Gen-Z, and how McDonald’s recently taught a masterclass in how to reach this generation.

You might have heard that McDonald’s launched a new promotion around the McDonald’s character Grimace, including a “limited edition purple shake inspired by Grimace’s iconic color and sweetness.”

People went to town on this promotion on TikTok, including a trend that involved people pretending to review the “purple shake,” only to devolve into horrific (and creative) scenes — things like convulsing on the ground, frothing at the mouth, lying dead in a forest, and “disappearing and being replaced by a scene of menacing, purple smoke.”

(I wrote about this recently and included a video link to all of this that you can find here.)

Still, I wondered (and asked McDonald’s for comment without success): Is it true that there’s no such thing as bad publicity?

Now we have a lot more answers, as Guillaume Huin, social-media director of brand content and engagement at McDonald’s, took to LinkedIn and Twitter to explain what was going on behind the scenes. I’ll include his post below, but here are the key takeaways:

  • First, he says the whole campaign was basically serendipity. In other words, if you think they managed to plant or orchestrate the whole “grimace shake trend” on social media, then, “thank you… But you think way too highly of us.”
  • Second, he gives a shout-out to the creator who took the shake and ran with it, so to speak: Austin Frazier, who in fact posted his own explanation of how he launched the trend and what he learned.
  • Third, they kept up their social-media posts as if it were Grimace writing the tweets, including “a particular tone of voice, attitude, ‘way of typinggg’ and taking badly cropped and blurry selfies.”

  • Fourth, Huin said lots of debate went into whether to acknowledge the trend, and McDonald’s almost decided not to. But after spending hours reviewing “brilliant creativity, unfiltered fun, peak absurdist gen z humor, just the way a new generation of creators and consumers play with brands,” they made up their collective minds.

  • Finally, and this might have been the biggest risk, they responded to the trend with a single tweet (from Grimace) that was supposed to be super-low key, “the same way you would respectfully and gently nod at someone, without repeating what they said to show you agree with them and stealing their thunder.”

I think those nine words — “without repeating what they said… and stealing their thunder” — are probably the most important. It’s all about perpetuating the trend while not interfering with it.

If you wanted to take some inspiration from McDonald’s to market to Gen Z in your business, I think the main idea here is to try several things knowing that only a few have a chance to succeed — and be willing to step back and avoid intruding if things take off.

By the way, I reached out to McDonald’s again, and to Huin, but received no reply; maybe they’re taking their own advice on what works, above. Here’s the full text of how Huin explained it.

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