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McDonald’s Happy Meal: The Story Of A Marketing Icon

  • August 8, 2023
  • 6 min read
McDonald’s Happy Meal: The Story Of A Marketing Icon

Who has not ever eaten a “McDonald’s happy meal“? It is a memory of all the children who have asked their parents to buy one. The most famous chain has been using this sales strategy for more than 40 years now. But how did this “McDonald’s happy meal” come about? Here we tell you the story of this marketing icon of the last century.

It arose to captivate children and get the whole family to eat at the chain’s restaurants. Today, it is so popular that there is a Happy Meal for adults. For four decades, the Happy Meal was essential to McDonald’s commercial success.

How did the idea of the “Happy Meal” originate?

During the 1970s, in the United States, the competition for the “fast food” gastronomic market had many contenders who sought to secure a fundamental part of consumers: children.

McDonald’s had made a series of image modification decisions that did not positively impact consumers. What allowed chains like Burger King to receive more complete families? This caused McDonald’s to look for a strategy to attract children and parents back to its stores. Bob Bernstein, in charge of multi-city McDonald’s advertising, was appointed to solve this problem.

The Classic McDonald’s Hamburgers- A Must On The Menu:

A specialist in children’s advertising, Bernstein deduced that what children wanted to do while they ate was play and entertain themselves with something that amused them. So, he and his agency began to develop the concept of a happy moment in a “McDonald happy meal.”They began to design a box in which the food came and contained, in a promotional way, a toy. This first edition of the Happy Meal was only released in a few cities like Kansas because the directors in Chicago were not convinced of the strategy.

McDonald Happy Meal: A Reality

After a few years of successful testing in these cities, in 1979, McDonald’s launched the “Happy Meal” nationwide, becoming a successful marketing icon.

As a business decision, the McDonald happy meal had clear foundations. The loss of a large sector of consumers, children, meant that the rest of the family did not go to restaurants either. It was the need to captivate the small audience again to attract the whole family, which primarily originated the “Happy Meal.”

Over the years and decades, McDonald’s has opted for different strategies to attract the specific public with the McDonald happy meal. Collaborations and agreements with various companies, from clothing brands to artists or film companies have become common, causing large public masses to go to the stores.

Despite the company’s officialization, many franchise owners were not convinced by the idea because they feared it would interfere with the rest of their products. For this reason, several years of work were carried out so that the Happy Meal stopped being a promotional product to become a permanent part of the chain’s menu. This was achieved in the mid-1980s.

McDonald Happy Meal: Celebrated 

The invention of the “McDonald happy meal” opened up various possibilities for McDonald’s to use this product differently, thus attracting the public with ‘news.’ In 1979, it took advantage of the premiere of the movie Star Trek to advertise the “Happy Meal.” This was the first of many promotions related to the world of cinema.

Bob Bernstein’s role in the Happy Meal lasted until it was installed as part of the final menu. His initiatives were focused on the design of the boxes, while the toys were the ones that attracted the most attention.

Strategic Alliances For McDonald happy meal Toys:

During the second half of the 1980s, McDonald’s began working with Hollywood studios and leading toy companies, such as Mattel. In 1987 the Muppet toys were launched, and the remembered ‘Hot Wheels’ began to emerge the following year.

In the 1990s, McDonald’s took advantage of the boom in animated fiction series and children’s cartoons to create characters for its Happy Meals. Beanie Babies, Power Rangers, Transformers, and other popular children’s shows and movies were the main characters inside the boxes.

In 1996, an alliance was signed between McDonald’s and Disney to produce toys inspired by the movies to include them in happy meals. The toy was the reason children “bother” their parents to eat the McDonald’s happy meal, essential to make this chain the center of family life. Apart from recreational or leisure outings, eating at McDonald’s had an extra reason for children. In this way, the company decided to make strategic alliances with other companies over time, to enhance and reinforce the attractiveness of this proposal.

McDonald Happy Meal: Collectible Toys

Many people are fond of collecting artifacts of all kinds, so there is a market in which collector’s items are highly valued.

McDonald’s toys, produced since the early days of the McDonald happy meal, can be a gold mine for someone who wants to sell them. On internet sales pages, toys from the various collections launched by the company can sell for incredible sums. As estimated, since 1980, 100 million McDonald’s toys have been produced per year.

Did you know collectors who are willing to pay fortunes? For example, some people offer $10,000 on the eBay platform for some Beanie Babies stuffed animals. From the late 1990s, the Snoopy collection can sell for around $400. It is an excellent way to get extra income; it is easy to find collectors for this type of toy.

Happy Meal for Adults: A Call to Nostalgia

In 2022, McDonald’s publicized “McDonald’s Happy Meal for adults.” It is aimed at the adult public, with designs and proposals that refer to old versions of the product. Everyone keeps in their ‘inner child’ some related memory.

The announcement of this initiative was published on the company’s social networks, exciting the public to acquire one of those Happy Meals. It went on sale in early October, and people can choose between a classic Big Mac or ten pieces of chicken nuggets, plus fries and a drink. Of course, the toy is included.

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Fatima Humayun

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