Catching Up With: Kevin Newell, McDonald’s global chief brand officer

McDonald's Global Chief Brand Officer and former sprinter Kevin Newell
McDonald’s has been criticized by British press over its contributions to growing waist lines. Today it struck back.

When Kevin Newell was named McDonald’s global chief brand officer in 2011, it gave him a chance to oversee the company’s marketing of the Olympics. It’s a role the former All-American sprinter at the University of Kansas has enjoyed. He sat down to talk about the company’s marketing efforts and how it’s tried to combat some of the British media’s criticism for the restaurant chain’s alleged role in rising global obesity.

In the past, McDonald’s took a nation-by-nation approach to its Olympic marketing. This time it’s global. How did that affect your planning process?

NEWELL: It’s both. Champions of Play (a program encouraging kids to exercise) is a global initiative, but it’s activated at the local level in a way which makes sense and is most relevant for that country.

You had 100,000 activities logged by kids on your website for Champions of Play. How did that compare to original expectations?

NEWELL: 100,000 in three weeks (is) not bad. I would have preferred a million by this time (laughing). I used to work a few years ago at Leo Burnett in Chicago. The model there was reach for the stars. You might not get one, but you won’t come up with a handful of mud, either.

Will you keep the program after the Olympics?

NEWELL: Yes. This is not a one and done.

Will it remain tied to the Olympics?

NEWELL: If local markets can make an Olympic linkage to Champions of Play, I think they will do it. Probably from a relevancy standpoint it will have more traction and meaning in local markets in this Olympic year. But Champions of Play as a branded program for McDonald’s activated in local markets is not going away after the Olympics. All of our markets across the globe understand that active play is essential to children’s well being, which is a key initiative for us.

How did the obesity criticism affect your marketing approach coming into these Games?

NEWELL: The only thing it really affected is, really, for us, being more proud to tell our story. We’re extremely proud of the quality of our food. The taste of our food. The fact that 69 million people a day eat in our restaurants. But we have a bigger story to tell as it relates to our food. … A lot of people don’t realize we have a gold standard that’s the envy of many company’s supply chain. A lot of people say, “I didn’t know that.” There are a lot of myths about where the food comes from.

Did the anticipation or knowledge that the Olympics are about performance and participation influence your marketing and promote the creation of Champions for Play and other initiatives?

NEWELL: Clearly the Olympics provide a platform to tell a broader story, the story that you want told. Did it give us an opportunity to talk to a broader global audience about our food? Absolutely.

In 2010, the big concern at McDonald’s was the Subway ad and ambush marketing. How are things two years later?

NEWELL: We’re in a very competitive business. Folks will do things from time to time that as the official restaurant of the Olympics we’re not going to be happy with. You will hear in comments from myself, (CEO) Don (Thompson) and other folks that we are the official restaurant of the Olympics. Our (Olympic) pins talk about the official restaurant of the Olympics. It’s been instrumental in the press when the IOC talks about in their comments the official restaurant of the Olympics is McDonald’s. It’s the sound bite that needs to be repeated over and over so that people really understand it.

You ran track at Kansas. What athletic competitions will you see?

NEWELL: Unfortunately, I won’t. It’s my anniversary and I’m doing what my wife wants to do, so I’ll be watching from Paris.

What events will you be watching?

NEWELL: Obviously, on the track, what Usain (Bolt) is going to do with his countryman Yohan (Blake). … I think (Bolt) is going to repeat the double. I think he’s going to break the world record again in the 200.

Is he your favorite to be the face of the Games?

NEWELL: I think he will be. The expectation and anticipation of what he might do at this Olympics is at an all-time high. But if he loses, don’t call me.

What was your best time in the 100 meters?

NEWELL: He ran 9.58. I ran a 10.1. I couldn’t even come close.

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