It seems like I spend most of my time picking apart marketing flops and failures. It is important to do so, because there are object lessons to be found amid those faux pas, cautionary tales for any aspiring marketer to remember and never repeat.
But there is also wisdom in studying successes. Sure, sometimes it may appear to be all too obvious why something becomes insanely popular, because it really all boils down to marketers meeting consumer needs, and doing it in such a way that maximizes value, and is available when and where consumers are most likely to want it.
Subtle, For Sure
And then there are those times when the marketing is more subtle, yet you realize there is a method to the madness, that maybe they just intended things to turn out this way, even if large portions of the plot were unscripted.
Like the summer promo McDonald’s has been running with its Grimace Shake. Grimace, for those of you who weren’t around in 1971, is one of several characters the chain created to help tell—and sell—the McDonald’s story. This is another way of saying they made it all very kid-friendly, and parents have been taking their kids there just to get them to shut up. What is Grimace anyway? He was the shake-stealing anthropomorphized taste bud. Really.
Oh, and if you have any of the old Happy Meal toys from then, they are worth a ton of money these days.
So last month on the 12th, McDonald’s released the Grimace Shake, and it has become an internet sensation, taking on a new life of its own. Gen-Zers in particular have taken to the purple shake, and created an endless stream of reels, which they post to TikTok. All the while, McDonald’s is reaping zillions of dollars in free marketing.
Risk For Everyone
To be fair, there was and still is some risk in a strategy like this. After all, it could have completely backfired and spawned hate, or nothing at all. But in this case, McDonald’s effectively had a Pride Month campaign without actually having one—because people made the connection themselves—as well as parody clips that show people faking their deaths after drinking the gooey concoction.
And yeah, that part is risky business, but the reels have not been taken literally. I can’t think of any companies who would want their product associated with death. But when you unleash anything these days, you implicitly accept that the jury of public opinion—in this case, TikTokers—will do what they want with it. In this case, it worked like a charm, because what could possibly be bad about a milk shake named after a legendary character?
To their credit, McDonald’s is playing along and milking it—pun intended—to the hilt. It cleverly dodges questions about the flavor, slyly inviting people to try it themselves. Oh, and you can’t just walk in and order this shake. It comes as part of a meal deal featuring your choice of a Big Mac or 10-piece Chicken McNuggets, medium fries, and medium shake. It clocks in at about 1500 calories.
Can anyone say food coma?
In The Short-Run
McDonald’s is no stranger to short-term menu items, some of which have become annual, like the Shamrock Shake. And then there’s McRib, the ultra-processed pork patty served on a long bun with gobs of barbecue sauce. The McRib keeps coming back to life periodically, as it has since 2005 when it became a seasonal item. Rumor has it that last year’s release was the last, but I’m pretty sure that McDonald’s knows the sandwich has a cult-like following of fanatics. They would be wise to keep it coming back long into the future.
As I bet they will do with the Grimace Shake, since it has proven to be more viral than pretty much any of the other promo menu items they have released. And what a sneaky way to let fans do the associating with Pride Month, thereby dodging any stray bullets coming from the Far Right. Sheer genius, I tell you, but with a little risk. But there’s seldom a big payoff when the risk is low.
Good job, McDonald’s. You have struck gold with purple.
Dr “Shake It Up” Gerlich