McDonald's Debuts an Unnerving New Mascot and Highlights Its Ongoing Identity Crisis

The latest Happy Meal mascot is getting torn apart by critics. What does this puzzling new character say about McDonald's and the state of the restaurant industry?

May 25, 2014 at 8:09AM

Screen Shot

Source: McDonald's Twitter

McDonald's (NYSE:MCD) is suffering from identity issues. As fast casual restaurants like Chipotle continue to woo consumers away from the Golden Arches and traditional rivals like Yum! Brands' (NYSE:YUM) Taco Bell and Burger King (NYSE:BKW) increasingly look to eat into the breakfast business, Ronald and company have been forced to do some soul searching. The world's largest restaurant chain is attempting to reshape its image, hoping to shed unhealthy associations while still retaining its reputation for value.

Happy, the recently debuted mascot for McDonald's signature Happy Meals, is the latest attempt to put a new face to the company's operations. The toothy box debuted to unfavorable reactions on social media and news outlets, with critics quickly jumping to describe the new character as "scary," "terrifying," and "hideous." The harsh reviews highlight the messaging difficulties the company is facing.

Is McDonald's losing its grip on the kids meal?
McDonald's has historically done a much better job of appealing to children than its chief fast food competitors, but sales of the combo meals have lagged in recent years. While restaurants like Taco Bell, Burger King, and Wendy's have all packaged toys with meals to appeal to young consumers, the Happy Meal program is still nearly synonymous with the practice. It's not surprising to see the company attempt to appeal to an important demographic with a new cartoon creation.

Setting morality and health issues aside for the moment, introducing children to McDonald's at a young age is a great way to increase the likelihood that they will continue to do business at the chain as they get older. Naturally, this marketing approach has garnered its fair share of opponents, prompting McDonald's to infuse its child-based advertising initiatives with nutritional data and information. The move is a necessary one due to an increasingly health-conscious consumer base, but the perception of Happy Meals as "fun" is central to their appeal. Enter characters like Happy.

Happy isn't the first new mascot for Happy Meals to be introduced within the last five years (the character debuted in France in 2009). 2012 saw McDonald's debut Ferris and his animal friends, cartoon creations who emphasized the value of healthy lifestyles.

Happy looks familiar

Screen Shot

Source: DespicableMe.com

The recent crowning of Happy as the new ambassador for its kids meals may be an indication that McDonald's is looking to put some of the focus back on fun. Happy is still intended to be an ambassador for health, but the character's design bears a striking resemblance to the Minion characters from Universal's Despicable Me series. Across two movies, the franchise has generated approximately $1.5 billion at the global box office and spawned valuable merchandising opportunities.

The Minion characters are hugely popular with young children, so while Happy appears to be a failure with adults, the relevant jury is still out. The extent of the pushback against the character makes it unlikely that it will enjoy a long life as a center stage mascot, but reactions on sites like Twitter aren't a great gauge for whether or not Happy can become a hit with kids.

Taco Bell and Burger King aim to eat breakfast
The importance of marketing toward children for McDonald's is compounded by challenges to the company's breakfast dominance. Taco Bell recently made waves with a series of ads that took aim at McDonald's and brought attention to its own early morning offerings. The company's Breakfast Quesarito test item has been doing good business and getting solid reviews, making it the chain's most successful test product since the Doritos Locos Tacos. The Quesarito is likely to join the A.M. Crunch Wrap and the Waffle Taco as nationwide menu additions.

Screen Shot

Source: TacoBell.com

Burger King has taken a different approach to getting a bigger bite of the breakfast market: introducing burgers as a morning option for its customers. Whether this winds up being a winning play remains to be seen, but it's clear that breakfast is a focal battlefield for fast food giants.

Will McDonald's strike back on the breakfast front?
Rumors that McDonald's will extend its breakfast hours have circulated for years, but the influx of competition has brought added pressure to shake up its menu offerings. Such a move could help to ensure the company's breakfast food dominance, but it could also be pricey for franchisees. This could make it necessary for the company to step in and offset some of the cost. This is yet another instance where McDonald's faces a choice that has the potential to profoundly impact its corporate identity.

Happy is a sign of bigger problems
With sales of children's meals in decline, Happy is a stumble for McDonald's at a crucial juncture and a reminder of the inhospitable marketing climate the company faces. Ronald and friends have access to billion-dollar advertising budgets, and Happy Meals are estimated to make up approximately 10% of the company's sales. The Happy character may yet go on to win an audience, but with such immense resources and so much riding on the line, the grinning box makes for an uneasy savior.

Your credit card may soon be completely worthless
The plastic in your wallet is about to go the way of the typewriter, the VCR, and the 8-track tape player. When it does, a handful of investors could stand to get very rich. You can join them -- but you must act now. An eye-opening new presentation reveals the full story on why your credit card is about to be worthless -- and highlights one little-known company sitting at the epicenter of an earth-shaking movement that could hand early investors the kind of profits we haven't seen since the dot-com days. Click here to watch this stunning video.

Keith Noonan has no position in any stocks mentioned. The Motley Fool recommends Burger King Worldwide and McDonald's. Try any of our Foolish newsletter services free for 30 days. We Fools may not all hold the same opinions, but we all believe that considering a diverse range of insights makes us better investors. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.

1 Key Step to Get Rich

Our mission at The Motley Fool is to help the world invest better. Whether that’s helping people overcome their fear of stocks all the way to offering clear and successful guidance on complicated-sounding options trades, we can help.

Feb 1, 2016 at 4:54PM

To be perfectly clear, this is not a get-rich action that my Foolish colleagues and I came up with. But we wouldn't argue with the approach.

A 2015 Business Insider article titled, "11 websites to bookmark if you want to get rich" rated The Motley Fool as the #1 place online to get smarter about investing.

"The Motley Fool aims to build a strong investment community, which it does by providing a variety of resources: the website, books, a newspaper column, a radio [show], and [newsletters]," wrote (the clearly insightful and talented) money reporter Kathleen Elkins. "This site has something for every type of investor, from basic lessons for beginners to investing commentary on mutual funds, stock sectors, and value for the more advanced."

Our mission at The Motley Fool is to help the world invest better, so it's nice to receive that kind of recognition. It lets us know we're doing our job.

Whether that's helping the entirely uninitiated overcome their fear of stocks all the way to offering clear and successful guidance on complicated-sounding options trades, we want to provide our readers with a boost to the next step on their journey to financial independence.

Articles and beyond

As Business Insider wrote, there are a number of resources available from the Fool for investors of all levels and styles.

In addition to the dozens of free articles we publish every day on our website, I want to highlight two must-see spots in your tour of fool.com.

For the beginning investor

Investing can seem like a Big Deal to those who have yet to buy their first stock. Many investment professionals try to infuse the conversation with jargon in order to deter individual investors from tackling it on their own (and to justify their often sky-high fees).

But the individual investor can beat the market. The real secret to investing is that it doesn't take tons of money, endless hours, or super-secret formulas that only experts possess.

That's why we created a best-selling guide that walks investors-to-be through everything they need to know to get started. And because we're so dedicated to our mission, we've made that available for free.

If you're just starting out (or want to help out someone who is), go to www.fool.com/beginners, drop in your email address, and you'll be able to instantly access the quick-read guide ... for free.

For the listener

Whether it's on the stationary exercise bike or during my daily commute, I spend a lot of time going nowhere. But I've found a way to make that time benefit me.

The Motley Fool offers five podcasts that I refer to as "binge-worthy financial information."

Motley Fool Money features a team of our analysts discussing the week's top business and investing stories, interviews, and an inside look at the stocks on our radar. It's also featured on several dozen radio stations across the country.

The hosts of Motley Fool Answers challenge the conventional wisdom on life's biggest financial issues to reveal what you really need to know to make smart money moves.

David Gardner, co-founder of The Motley Fool, is among the most respected and trusted sources on investing. And he's the host of Rule Breaker Investing, in which he shares his insights into today's most innovative and disruptive companies ... and how to profit from them.

Market Foolery is our daily look at stocks in the news, as well as the top business and investing stories.

And Industry Focus offers a deeper dive into a specific industry and the stories making headlines. Healthcare, technology, energy, consumer goods, and other industries take turns in the spotlight.

They're all informative, entertaining, and eminently listenable ... and I don't say that simply because the hosts all sit within a Nerf-gun shot of my desk. Rule Breaker Investing and Answers contain timeless advice, so you might want to go back to the beginning with those. The other three take their cues from the market, so you'll want to listen to the most recent first. All are available at www.fool.com/podcasts.

But wait, there's more

The book and the podcasts – both free ... both awesome – also come with an ongoing benefit. If you download the book, or if you enter your email address in the magical box at the podcasts page, you'll get ongoing market coverage sent straight to your inbox.

Investor Insights is valuable and enjoyable coverage of everything from macroeconomic events to investing strategies to our analyst's travels around the world to find the next big thing. Also free.

Get the book. Listen to a podcast. Sign up for Investor Insights. I'm not saying that any of those things will make you rich ... but Business Insider seems to think so.


Compare Brokers