At SxSW, McDonald’s Explores Personalization And Engagement Through Multiple Lenses

Location data, virtual and augmented reality, messaging platforms, and mobile pay all come together from global to local for the iconic burger chain.

McDonald’s Loft, the brand’s SxSW showroom across from Austin’s convention center, represents the quick service restaurant chain’s vision of the near-future: custom burgers, DIY sundaes, virtual reality booths.

But behind this vision of customers designing their own Happy Meal boxes — or possibly transforming those receptacles into virtual reality readers — is McDonald’s latest recipe for greater personalization, an attempt to balance the company’s massive scale with one-to-one engagement.

The recipe is a not-so-secret sauce comprised of location data, mobile and social media marketing, and the use of VR and augmented reality designed to appeal to McDonald’s key demographic groups, which include Millennials and young families — a base that seeks services and products that provide personal, customized relationships.

Personalization Portal

“When you say ‘personalization,’ there are a lot of tactics and tools that you can associate with executing on that goal, but at the same time, all those choices makes it very hard to solve the problem,” said Eric Moujaes, McDonald’s senior director of Global Digital Product. “You say ‘personalization’ at a big brand like McDonald’s, and the reaction may often be, ‘Well, how am I going to automate all this at scale? I’m feeding a billion people every 10 days. How do we do personalization?’ The answer is in breaking it down into smaller chunks. Let’s start with knowing who you are and your favorite menu items, so that you can build a platform to make those channels more personalized.”

McDonald's Eric Moujaes moderates SxSW panel with Kik's Jae Kim, and I Heart Media's Tim Castelli.
McDonald’s Eric Moujaes moderates SxSW panel with Kik’s Jae Kim, and I Heart Media’s Tim Castelli.

The personalized experience at a McDonald’s can appear something like this: A consumer comes in and logs in to use a franchise’s wi-fi network, which opens to a branded portal. At the top of the portal, when the page is refreshed, McDonald’s notes how many times you’ve been back. Depending on the frequency of a particular customer’s visits, the language they see will change slightly with each refreshing of the web portal.

And that’s one way McDonald’s solves the natural contradiction of personalization and scale.

“What we’re doing with the wi-fi portal is being done without massive scale at the moment; that’s just a small thing that we’re doing,” Moujaes told GeoMarketing following a panel discussion on bridging digital and physical at McDonald’s SxSW lounge. “We’re going to start to introduce more and more personalized messaging, but yet it’s still done at a large scale.”

Happy Goggles To See Digital/Physical

In Sweden, McDonald’s is running a VR test with Happy Meals called “Happy Goggles,” where the boxes that the food comes in can be turned into a VR viewer.

“The Happy Goggles box is literally bridging the physical and digital right there,” Moujaes said. “We’re 100 percent behind exploring how to use tools like VR and AR. Number one, we want to make sure it’s meaningful, and number two, we want to make sure it’s cost-effective.

“When you start bridging the gap from digital to physical, your costs start to go up, so we have to look at that very carefully,” Moujaes added. “In part, we have to ask, ‘What is that return on our investment,’ but also, ‘What is the return on the experience?’ That’s what’s most important. We’ll find ways to scale it. When you have a big enough footprint, you’ll always find ways to make it work on all levels.”

During the panel discussion, Tim Castelli, president, National Sales, Marketing & Partnerships for iHeartMedia, offered an analogy for how to view the balance between personalization and mass by noting the advent of “Silent Disco.”

“You see a room full of people with headphones, listening to their own individual soundtrack, but they’re in the same place,” Castelli said. “Technology enables these have these individual experiences but you’re together. So when we talk about applying AR or VR, one one hand, everyone likes ‘shiny pennies,’ the new special thing that attracts everyone’s attention. For a brand like McDonald’s, you need scale. So it comes down to finding a way to connect personal tech to shared experiences. That’s where this all becomes interesting.”

Location As A Foundation

On top of his oversight of McDonald’s digital products, Moujaes also manages the company’s location strategy. Since personalization starts with the store experience and the features of each franchise, location is viewed as a key to unlocking what customers feel about specific outlets. The underlying message is “this is my McDonald’s.”

“Location is just one ingredient in creating context, which also includes looking at a range of consumer preferences to provide a great experience at McDonald’s,” Moujaes said. “There are other things that go into that. Location gives us a key piece of that puzzle. That involves determining where you are, so that we know whether to ‘light up’ that experience at that store. There are massive changes throughout when it coms to the graphics, cultures, depending on which McDonald’s location you’re looking at and it depends on what market you’re in, or what store.”

Starting with the data around specific locations enhances personalization on a large-scale basis, but the array of tools that can be used to figure out how to implement it can raise a range of other issues.

“Bluetooth beacons, NFC, wi-fi, GPS — there are so many technologies to look at,” Moujaes said. “All any of us can do is plan for where the road is going, while trying not to over-plan or over-commit to anything unless it satisfies that quality experience.”

Defining Engagement

When it comes to using all those technologies to balance personalization and scale, the challenge to make it all “engaging” starts with how McDonald’s understands that word.

During his panel discussion, DeLu Jackson, VP for McDonald’s Global Digital group, said that the idea is for franchises to keep the definition of engagement as simple as possible.

McDonald's DeLu Jackson with Sprinklr's Tom Butta and DDB's Alex Hesz.
McDonald’s DeLu Jackson with Sprinklr’s Tom Butta and DDB’s Alex Hesz.

“It’s really about seeing that customer smile — that’s one-to-one, and that’s hard to measure with data, though we can get some insights from Instagram,” Jackson said. “The larger point is, when someone shares that Instagram, all of sudden, the engagement goes from one person to touching hundreds of people in an instant.”

While bringing together the attributes of personalization and engagement, McDonald’s is trying to navigate ways of making omnichannel features (like mobile pay, which emphasizes “efficiency” over affinity) mutually self-reinforcing.

To make it happen, both Moujaes and Jackson said the chain has fully embraced the idea of the consumer being in control, something that is often more of a claim than a practice for large brands.

In Jackson’s explanation of McDonald’s approach, he positioned it as a natural progression that has occurred throughout the brand’s history.

“The power of the consumer has always been felt, starting with the idea that convenience was defined as having a drive-thru,” Jackson said. “Then it was the walk-in. Then it was the kiosk. Now, it’s mobile. All those things are part of how consumers define convenience and an engaging experience. And that’s why it’s so important for us to be in places like SxSW. It’s all about what’s happening, what’s new and emerging around those ideas that we have always sought to cultivate. As a convenience brand, we want to be right there.”

About The Author
David Kaplan David Kaplan @davidakaplan

A New York City-based journalist for over 20 years, David Kaplan is managing editor of A former editor and reporter at AdExchanger, paidContent, Adweek and MediaPost.