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The K-pop playbook: inside McDonald’s ‘Famous Order’ collab with BTS

There are famous orders, and then there is the BTS famous order. Officially the biggest band right now, BTS’s McDonald’s order has finally been served up in the US, before going on tour to nearly 50 other markets. Taking a page out of the K-pop playbook to connect with customers, the collab with the tech-savvy boyband is more than just a 10-piece chicken nugget meal with fries. McDonald’s marketing boss Jennifer Healan explains why.

When McDonald’s announced ‘The BTS Meal’ back in April, the ‘Famous Order’ launch blew up on social media – trending number one in the US and number two globally. At this point, Jennifer Healan, vice-president US marketing, brand content and engagement, knew McDonald’s was “on to something very positive”, admitting that while it had success with the Travis Scott and J Balvin launch, the reaction was “not to the scale of BTS”.

To bring some scale to BTS’s level of influence, the K-pop superstars are one of South Korea’s biggest exports, bringing $4.65bn to its economy last year while accounting for 70% of the country’s annual tourists.

Digitally savvy, the global phenomenon are masters at garnering attention online. Between 2013 and 2020, there were 2,395,082,950 mentions of BTS on social. “BTS are like digital detectives,” Healan says. “They think about what their audience loves and enjoys, what they get excited about, and engage with it.”

Officially the biggest band in the world right now, McDonald’s has been keen to take a page out of the K-pop playbook, using the collab to “increase fan engagement and drive the business, while celebrating our core menu items”, admitting that “we leaned into them because of how they reach their fan base, who are also McDonald’s fans“.

One lesson from the K-pop branding machine that McDonald’s is applying to the launch is what they call BTS’s ‘smart hints’ to tease the collab. “As part of our lead-up to launch day, we once again pulled another page out of the playbook, announcing what’s happening with the dates, because that is also something that is very connected to K-pop culture – giving fans information, so they can know what to look for,“ she shares. “But we’ve done it through the lens of the meal and the content that we’ll be dropping.“

Masters of heralding album releases, last month the boyband released an hour-long animation of a block of melted butter to promote their new single ‘Butter’, which will play across the McDonald’s campaign. With a sixth sense for what the BTS Army want to engage with, while the animation is literally just butter melting, the graphic has garnered 16 million views and counting.

With ‘Butter’ acting as the musical backdrop for the collab, Healan says “McDonald’s is playing a part of the next chapter of BTS’s music“ that harks back to the days of its ‘I’m Lovin’ It’ jingle when Justin Timberlake helped launch a marketing campaign tied around that slogan.

And, music to McDonald’s ears, the song released last week made YouTube history when it became the fastest video in YouTube history to surpass 10 million views – doing so in just 13 minutes. It now has 200 million views, trending number one for music on the platform.

“We’re connecting with their fans in a way that they’re used to,” says Healan, pointing out the fortuitous timing of the single launch. “It really sets the tone for the campaign.”

From the get-go, she says BTS has been very involved with the entire development of the campaign. “Not only from the order itself but crafting of all the creative. They were phenomenal as a partner, thinking through all the different aspects of our campaign from the film to the social posts we’ve done to the development of the merch.”

Indeed, one thing BTS is notorious for is its merchandising and endorsement empire, which is on a scale never seen in Western music thanks to BTS’s huge social presence. It enables them to reach millions of young consumers.

On May 25 Hybe Merch announced on Twitter about the BTS X McDonald’s merch drop via an animation of the band alongside the playful hashtag #DidYouFindThemAll? The bright graphic sees the band chilling in a McDonald’s, wearing various products from t-shirts and jumpers to socks and even a suitcase, teasing its BTS Army.

With The BTS Meal launch in the US, McDonald’s has finally revealed the BTS X McDonald’s merch, which will no doubt sell out in minutes.

McDonald’s first began ‘Famous Orders’ back in 2020 during the Superbowl, where it asked some of its most iconic customers tuning in with the rest of the country Sunday night what their go-to orders are: Kim and Kanye, Millie Bobby Brown, Whoopi Goldberg, reporter Erin Andrews, Dracula, the Hamburglar, and the Big Bad Wolf.

“It starts with our fans. It doesn’t matter how big or famous you are, everyone has a McDonald’s order. And because of that, people feel even more connected to these celebrities. It’s all about authenticity,” Healan explains. “It became a strategic platform idea, which is important to us to keep coming back to as it continues to build the brand.”

Following ‘Famous Trays’, McDonald’s has collaborated with musicians Travis Scott and J Balvin, which both proved to be significant drivers of US sales, helping to strengthen its digital business and increasing its digital customers, who downloaded its app during those promotions. This is why for this BTS launch, McDonald’s has created four weeks of dynamic in-app content for customers, which it claims is the ‘first of its kind’. Starting with the launch, McDonald’s will reveal exclusive digital surprises each week featuring the band, which can be viewed on the app.

“As we think about the success of this, this Famous Orders program is the perfect intersection of how we are maximizing our marketing, how it’s connecting to our core because we are shining a light on our core menu items,” Healan explains. “And also something that’s really important is the way we’re driving our digital ambition and also the experience of McDonald’s as people come through the drive-thru. This program has the perfect intersection of all three of those things related to the business.”

“In my 15 years as a McDonald's owner and operator, 'Famous Orders' definitely stands out as one of the most creative, authentic marketing campaigns we've launched,” adds Vicki Chancellor, McDonald’s owner and operator and chair, McDonald’s USA franchisee marketing committee.

“Franchisees are the company's boots-on-the-ground, so to speak, and we can tell what’s resonating most with the customers and crew members at our restaurants. I’ve seen firsthand the power of this program and how excited people are about the BTS Meal, and I couldn’t be prouder to partner with the company on this collaboration.”