#SFSW15: At McDonald’s, Digital is about ‘Fun and Convenience’ — Not Branding

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A few years ago, McDonald’s made a dramatic change in the way the company approached digital. In response to the growing importance of software in both its marketing and operations, the global brand created a centralized digital team, located in San Francisco, that would be responsible for development and implementation of technology initiatives across its over 35,000 restaurants.

At Street Fight Summit West in San Francisco Tuesday, Julia Vander Ploeg, US VP Digital at McDonald’s, sat down with Street Fight’s COO David Hirschman to talk about how her digital team has been working since then to weave technology into the fabric of one of the world’s largest franchise brands. Vander Ploeg discussed some of the challenges in implementing technology across a distributed franchise with thousands of interested parties, as well as how the company is thinking about technologies such as beacons, point-of-sale, coupons and personalization in stores.

The decision to create the Global Digital Team was an important turning point for the brand, says Vander Ploeg. Prior to this move, the company had tended to outsource its digital campaigns, leading to overly diversified and inefficient digital initiatives. She said, for example, that the company previously had hundred of different McDonald’s apps that had been developed by individual owners or co-op markets — all of which were operating side-by-side, not taking advantage of the company’s scaled global brand.

“Digital has become a really big focus at McDonald’s,” said Vander Ploeg. The shift has also encouraged renewed integration between corporate marketing strategies, and individual franchise operators’ goals.

McDonald’s may operate globally, but the chain is fundamentally local. Vander Ploeg stressed that the company is geared toward using digital platforms to reach out locally to their customers, with the hopes of enhancing individual customer satisfaction worldwide. The company is experimenting with more initiatives beyond marketing, such as a pilot program in New York offering food delivery. Delivery has been extremely successful at outlets in Asia, says Vander Ploeg.

Unlike many brands, McDonald’s is not looking at digital as a branding play. Vander Ploeg said McDonald’s, which already has close to universal brand awareness, is focusing its digital initiatives on enhancing customers’ “convenience and fun.” For instance, Vander Ploeg hinted that the company could bring now established web tactics like personalization into the physical world.

One possibility she mentioned: a digital menu board that would automatically customize its offerings to the purchase behavior of each diner.

Caitlin Maynard is a Street Fight contributor.