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How McDonald’s & Chipotle learned to let ‘culture & consumers drive the work’

When the marketing textbooks are written about the impact of lockdown, there will likely be a section dedicated to social listening. This key tactic has left an indelible mark on how both McDonald’s and Chipotle market to their fan base and beyond. Helping lead the charge are two of The Drum’s Future 50: Faizan Tahir, senior marketing manager, calendar planning, McDonald’s and Neiv Toledano, senior social media strategist, Chipotle.

“Chipotle is my life!” This proclamation went viral on Vine when that was still a thing. Looking to bring a little fun into people’s lives during the ominous days of February, Chipotle re-created this famous meme with the now 12-year-old Ron Murray. The internet applauded. Chipotle’s social media team had done it again.

“Our goal on social is really to supercharge our superfans. That’s the number one thing,” says Neiv Toledano, senior social media strategist, Chipotle. Toledano is one of The Drum’s Future 50 honorees this year. “At a time when there are so many, BTS and Travis Scott meals, we really hyped this unexpected collaboration on Twitter. Now everyone is guessing what our next collaboration will be.”

Of course, there is a reason why McDonald’s BTS and Travis Scott meals are on everyone’s minds. They were hugely profitable. The chain’s ‘famous orders’ program is the envy of many. McDonald’s has also found success showcasing its core menu items by “embracing the behaviors and rituals that are universally part of the McDonald’s experience that feel very personal to us,” says Future 50 honoree and McDonald’s senior marketing manager, calendar planning, Faizan Tahir. For example, “is there anyone who doesn’t eat the cheese that sticks to the wrapper?”

What both Toledano and Tahir have struck upon is the pure power of letting the customer dictate what is interesting and engaging to them. Both brands, with the help of these up-and-comers, excelled at both listening and reacting in an authentic way. This culture-first mindset will drive their marketing programs now and for the foreseeable future.

The Golden Arches let brand truths light the way

You don’t maintain your lead as the number one fast food chain by accident. There’s a decades-old, methodical tried-and-true way to market the Golden Arches. It involves leading with product and promotion. That’s just the way it was done.

Well, not anymore. McDonald’s has been increasingly looking for inspiration from “fan truths,” embracing user generated content and “becoming students of customer behavior,” says Tahir. “It’s putting the work back to the basics of who the brand is, back to the brand’s DNA and the emotional aspects of it.”

This is reflected in how McDonald’s has begun talking about its core menu items differently. They are now spotlighting what fans love about Big Macs, Quarter Pounders and French fries. “We prioritized things that focused on advocacy and engagement rather than products and promotions. That wasn’t what people were looking for from the brand. We started putting a message in front of them that they were actually interested in,” says Tahir.

For example, the launch of its Crispy Chicken sandwich touts that it is “from the place with the most stolen fries”, that “offers extra napkins for a reason” and it is from “the creators of a sandwich phenomenon”. It then shows the McRib followed by someone flaunting their tattoo version of the limited-edition product. This is all part of “evolving our brand voice to be a little more human,” says Tahir. “We need to let our customers guide the work from this point forward. We need to understand what they are looking for and what their needs are.”

It’s hard to argue with the Wall Street results. First quarter US same-store sales were up 13.6%. China and Japan also saw strong growth. All told, the chain has already surpassed its pre-pandemic numbers.

Becoming obsessed with customer conversations

Whether it’s burrito-inspired make-up colors from Elf Cosmetics, helping Diplo drop his new album (and 5,000 free burritos), or driving 10m video views of that former Vine phenom, Chipotle generally seems to be striking all the right cultural chords.

How do they do it? “It’s just being in the mindset of our consumers at all times. It is such a big part of our strategy and how we work,” says Toledano. “We are obsessed with what customers are listening to and talking about, and where their heads are at. That way we can think ‘OK, if they’re at this place or if this is popping up or that is trending, how can we come up with an idea that is authentic to Chipotle and really resonates with our customers where they are with their lives right now?’”

Toledano stresses the importance of staying curious. This has helped not only define Chipotle’s marketing practices but also her career path. After trying myriad different internships in public relations and ad sales, she discovered how much she enjoyed social media as it pertains to the restaurant industry. She reached out to Chipotle via LinkedIn and the rest is Future 50 history. “I love being on a team that’s leading the way, making a splash with Gen Z and I love to be in marketing. Plus, I’m a huge foodie myself so it all worked out.”

Indeed, it’s working out for Chipotle as a whole. Between its in-the-moment marketing, Chipotlane drive-throughs and other factors, the chain grew 7.1% to $6bn last year. In the first quarter, it beat Wall Street estimates with 17.2% same-store sales growth and 21% growth compared to pre-pandemic numbers. Analysts are expecting this number to rise to 30% in the second quarter.

Four Future 50 tips for other up-and-coming marketers

  • Seek out a mentor: “I’ve learned a lot from amazing people. They’ve inspired me to be better and they’ve also pushed me. You need those people in your life to continue to help you,” says Tahir.

  • Try something in the spirit of finding out if it’s not right for you: “It’s really important to understand what you like and what you don’t like. You have to be willing, and open, to that experimentation in the process of finding out what your dream job is down the road,” says Tahir.

  • Intern, a lot: “Internships guided me to where I needed to be. I think dipping your feet into everything and seeing what you like and what works for you is the best thing someone who’s starting out can do,” says Toledano.

  • Don’t be afraid to fail on social: “In order to win big on social media, you have to go through those failures and through those growing pains. Taking risks is very, very scary. But in this world, you have to do it to win,” says Toledano.

Here is the full list of all the Future 50 winners.

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