KV Sridhar
Guest Article

The story of how Ronald McDonald found a way into Ramesh and Rashmi’s hearts

McDonald’s India is now 25 years old. Adman Pops pens an ode to the brand he has known intimately - professionally and personally.

I have heard an anecdote about the love young India had for McDonald’s when it was launched, it goes like this. While selecting their college kids used to give priority to the ones that had McDonald's outlets in the vicinity. A brand that symbolises the uprising of the Indian middle class completes 25 years in the country and thus I share the journey of ‘I M Lovin it!

An American Burger gets an Indian Visa

Structurally McDonald’s has only two franchises in India, one for the north & east which belongs to Vikram Bakshi and for west and south Amit Jatia. What is interesting about this story is that Amit is a strict vegetarian even eggs don’t feature in his to-eat list. And this man wanted to bring this famous American brand to his country, despite the fact that it deals in a variety of meats. Meats that are not food but a topic of controversy in India. Apart from the humble chicken every other meat is a matter of opinion. Adding yet another obstacle to his vision was his strict vegetarian family, where doing a business that involves ‘chicken nuggets’ is a trigger to an uproar. But his conviction led him to convince his family to invest in bringing the brand to the country. In a way he convinced India to accept McDonald’s. This is the story of how an American Burger got an Indian Visa.

'Pops' KV Sridhar
'Pops' KV Sridhar

Ronald McDonald found a way into our hearts

McDonald’s took the pain to understand India and its uniqueness. It chose to be sensitive to the nuances of this diverse country and reinvented itself for it. They took into fold the local culture, flavours and choices. What they realised is the way Indian’s look at food and spend on it is different, and thus they repositioned the burger as a complete meal and not as a breakfast pickup. Because they wanted Indians to feel that the 40 bucks spent are a value for money.

In 1996 they started with one single restaurant in Bandra, Mumbai and it took them almost twelve years to grow one restaurant to 50 by 2006-2007. Further on hundreds of restaurants came in the next three years, that is by 2007-10. So that was a phenomenal success they were riding on, which can be attributed to two things: The Happy meal for children and a full value meal for adults. A complete family package.

1996, Bandra, First McDonald’s and my memories:

On our US holiday my five-year-old son, a french fries aficionado could only get himself a set of fries and ketchup in the outlet there because the rest was all a no-no for us vegetarians. And then in 1996 the happening suburb of Mumbai Bandra became home to the first outlet of McDonald’s. The very first week we took our son there and stood in the queue and this queue phenomenon went on for 20 days, queues that would reach up to National college. About an hour later, still in the queue having just moved a couple of yards, Amit Jatia, my friend, saw me and asked hey! What are you doing here? And I replied, ever since my son has seen the golden arches in his city, his eyes have been sparkling and thus we have got him here. Amit insisted that being a part of McDonald’s, how can I wait with my little one in a queue for hours and thus he ushered us in despite the rolling eyes and condescending looks. He spent time chatting with my son and making us comfortable. That was my first memory with McDonald’s in India.

Happy times happen at McDonald’s

I remember when I was in Chaitra Leo Burnett, I did some logo design work for McDonald’s as Arvind Sharma wanted to bag this global client coming to India. But after a pitch the account went to DDB Mudra and they did a commendable job in launching the brand in India. As a part of rotation Leo Burnett was awarded the account and it was memorable working for it. But DDB Mudra’s launch ad was beautiful. A young boy fails to recite his rhyme and perform on stage, his parents take him to McDonald’s to cheer him up and there he recites it beautifully and all people at the restaurant applaud for him. Clearly communicating that McDonald’s is where happiness happens.

A haven for kids!

As far as the restaurant culture goes kids often feel not very welcomed as they are expected to behave and be little adults. A crying child would be frowned upon, parents would be judged. But McDonald’s was the only place where children were allowed to be children. It is a place that told Indians for the first time that they come here as a family, enjoy as a family because we care for you being yourself.

A true hit when it comes to connecting with kids is the signature stroke of McDonald’s - the Happy Meal. A little toy with your yummy burger who wouldn't love it. Winning the love of kids was the best way to get into Indian homes, even today parents succumb to their kiddos saying - let's go to McD!

The story of how Ronald McDonald found a way into Ramesh and Rashmi’s hearts

A humble part of a massive journey:

Around the year 2000, Leo Burnett got an opportunity to work for McDonald’s in India. The first thing we decided to do was to target the younger generation. As the brand has kids covered with happy meals, families covered with value meals - but somewhere in the afternoon the restaurants would be empty. We decided to fill this gap by conceiving a ‘the Bahana campaign’. Where small-little excuses to celebrate were focused on and tied to the Happy price menu where you get things for only Rs. 20, times like a young girl becoming ‘Miss Dahisar’ celebrate with the Happy Price Menu, found a maid time for McDonald’s celebration. All of this you can get between 1:00 PM to 5:00 PM. A super hit offer for young pocket money living generation for Rs. 20, I get to sit in AC, spend fun times with my friends and eat a combination of burger, ice-cream, nuggets.

An absolute hit, the Happy meal price never looked back after that. After the Bahana campaign we extended the same offer with a new campaign ‘Humare zamane ke daam’. An idea where the age-old habit of parents telling their children the times, they lived in came alive. Nobody likes the story, but everybody loves the price.

Steering to health:

One interesting turn in McDonald’s journey was the health-conscious tryst. Globally the brand was under immense pressure for its role in fueling obesity. The brand pivoted well to tackle this obstacle from being perceived as a junk food brand it changed itself into fine-dine, real food experience. It changed its outlet designs to be more comfortable. Added new features to their menus like healthy breakfast, milkshakes, salads and fruits. McDonald’s shifted its strategy at the right time.

One such addition to add to the fine dine experience is McCafe. Understanding how Cafe Coffee Day and then Starbucks India’s coffee culture evolved, McDonald’s played in tandem with this trend and now they have served over a 100 million coffees. McCafe has contributed significantly to the brand's success.

The story of how Ronald McDonald found a way into Ramesh and Rashmi’s hearts

But such intensive journeys are never easy

The period from 2014-2018 was a time of controversies for the brand. In India it faced social media backlash and bad press. A rift between the brand and the North franchise spelt trouble, it sparked debate of American brands versus Indian counterparts. Another upheaval was the beef controversy that sparked religious, cultural and national debates. The brand found its way to put these challenges behind it. The trending hashtag then was #BoycottMcDonalds but the brand survived.

In 2019 the brand launched its delivery app for people to order directly. And then Swiggy and Zomato took over delivery and the brand gave up their delivery majorly to Zomato and Swiggy. And the business did very well before the pandemic hit, especially the physical restaurant version and they suffered like all other retail brands.

What could the brand do better in India

The emotional equity of the golden arches and Ronald McDonald seemed to have missed the mark and its utmost potential in India. In the US the two are nothing but the brand. These two powerful entities the golden arches for the symbol and Ronald for the human element could have been used a little more to create an interest and brand connect.

25 years and counting…

Such is the story of a mega brand bought in India by my dear friends Amit and Smita Jatia. A pair of shrewd and sharp business individuals with a big heart, the ones who have a knack for creativity and imagination. Unlike other international brands from different categories who are leaving India, succumbing to challenge, McDonald’s time and again has found a way to grow stronger in this tough terrain.

The brand is synonymous to innovation. Right from retail to product to communications the brand has never failed to bring ‘newness’ that connects with customers. In my view if they continue to nuance delivery, price, product, Indianness, and health consciousness as a brand it will only flourish.

While the brand has its ups and downs, and business has its trajectory what surpasses all of this is the emotion you leave behind, the legacy you leave behind. When it comes to McDonald’s it gave the humble, hard-working middle-class India, the true India an opportunity to indulge, enjoy and entertain itself. It is a pivotal symbol of the rise of the Indian middle class!

25 years of an American essence being a spirited Indian!

The author is global chief creative officer of Nihilent, described as ‘a global consulting and services company that uses a human-centered approach for problem-solving and change management’.