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McDonald’s and the Millennial Marketing Dilemma


Examining the trouble with relying on sweeping views and generalizations, after a global brand admits it got millennials wrong.

If you browsed a newspaper earlier this week you might have noticed trouble a-brewin’ at McDonald’s. The iconic fast food chain just reported a sixth consecutive quarterly loss, a trend that has new president and CEO Steve Easterbrook on the defensive only three months into his tenure.

Don’t worry, this is not a business article. I don’t have any thoughts on how McDonald’s might start to turn its business around, and as long as they keep making Egg McMuffins I’m not really sure I care. Instead, it’s what Easterbrook said about millennials that really interests me.

Burried 14 minutes into a 23 minute apology-laden webcast from the McDonald’s president and CEO, was some talk about the restaurant chain needing to be “more customer centric” including having deeper understanding of the customers McDonald’s serves.

And then Easterbrook dropped this: “We’ll focus on better listening, better segmentation. Less sweeping talk to millennials as if they’re one single group with shared attitudes.”

That’s progress, right? (This is me resisting the urge to launch into a rant about how they possibly thought “sweeping talk” to any group, be it millennials or others, was a good idea in the first place.)

Regardless of how awkward Easterbrook’s actual phrasing was, the statement does represent progress. Because that’s an iconic global brand admitting it got millennials wrong.

Long stereotyped in marketing, some brands are waking up to the fact not all millennials are the same.

Long stereotyped in marketing, some brands are waking up to the fact not all millennials are the same.

Is Brand Loyalty Dead? Not Really.

McDonald’s is far from alone in its pursuit of millennials and it’s not the only company with a brand loyalty problem. Here is an amazing article from The Wall Street Journal that will tell you everything you need to know.

Click that link and you’ll find another Easterbrook quote, this one from August 2014, when he was the company’s global chief brand officer. Here he describes millennials again. “The millennial generation has a wider range of choices than any generation before them…they’re promiscuous in their brand loyalty. It makes it harder work for all of us to earn the loyalty of the millennial generation.”

I am bothered by sweeping statements, generalizations and stereotypes about millennials because I don’t think they help anyone

Sure, we all have more choice but that’s an old millennial stereotype in itself, and it can’t be the only explanation. And it isn’t. The same article quotes a 21-year-old millennial from New Jersey named Alex Petersen, who says, “I do have nostalgic memories of McDonald’s, but Chipotle has much better quality food, or at least it feels like they do.”

Petersen’s words, “or at least it feels like they do” should haunt the dreams of marketing executives, because it doesn’t really seem to matter if Chipotle actually does have better quality food, it simply feels like it. In all fairness to Chipoltle, beyond its reputation for better quality food, it has spent considerable resources on initiatives that won’t make it any money directly, but instead, show the company’s willingness to be a good corporate citizen. It also demonstrates a company creating a brand people want to associate themselves with. That’s not just something millennials can get behind, it’s something anyone can get behind.

I don’t purport to be a marketing expert, but I am bothered by sweeping statements, generalizations and stereotypes about millennials because I don’t think they help anyone. Easterbrook’s admission about how McDonald’s viewed millennials should be a wake-up call. Millennials, like every other generation, are unique individuals who have their own distinct circumstances, goals, dreams and yes, problems. Some of us live at home, some of us have debt, some of us are having families, while others are just worried about getting older. Trying to appeal to everyone in a group so diverse is courting disaster.

If you’ve followed The Reply, you’ll know this is a familiar line from me. I touched on this briefly in my Trends that Shaped Millennials in 2014 article, and it’s a theme that continues today: millennials need to continue to fight the easy stereotypes and labels because it is important to recognize the diversity of our generation.


Christopher is Co-Founder and Managing Editor at The Reply. He has a fondness for strong coffee, good books and foreign news services. When he was five years old his father helped him raise a family of chipmunks over the winter, you should ask him about it. Professionally, he’s spent time as a technology journalist, PR consultant, and freelance blogger. Christopher’s work has appeared in a lot of trade magazines you’ve probably never heard of and maybe some you have. He has a B.A. in Political Science from the University of Toronto and a certificate in Media Foundations from Humber College in Toronto.