McDonald's Asia CMO on his first-ever global World Cup campaign and more

Eugene Lee opens up in a wide-ranging interview about its upcoming 2022 FIFA campaign, leveraging creativity, the metaverse, their menu and his own marketing role

Sep 30, 2022 09:57:00 AM | Article | Nikita Mishra

The 2022 FIFA World Cup which begins on November 20 in Qatar is under scrutiny for its suitability as a venue, the human rights suffering and the incredibly late autumn start. But for brands biting the bullet, it is ripe with momentous marketing opportunities for a number of reasons: Qatar 2022 will make history by bringing the World Cup to the Middle East for the first time. It will take place during the much-hyped shopping festivals like Black Friday, Cyber Monday and just ahead of Christmas. That scale, combined with the intensity, the frenzy of football and the fact that it is one of the few sporting events to go on schedule since the pandemic will be a key performance marketing opportunity for global brands.

 

“It is an exciting time in the calendar," says McDonald's Asia CMO Eugene Lee, who sat down with Campaign Asia-Pacific to talk about their first-ever global campaign in company history, launched at the World Cup. "Every single market in which we operate will activate Qatar 2022 campaign at the same time,” he says.

 

While not divulging McDonald's overall media spend with the campaign, Lee was happy to discuss the work which celebrates the emotional construct of fans, fandom and the “I’m Lovin’ it” jingle.


Eugene Lee, McDonald's Asia CMO

 

McDonald’s has had a long relationship with the FIFA World Cup. As the official sponsor of the upcoming Qatar World Cup in November, tell us about the campaigns in store for football fans.

 

We have something big and exciting planned for the biggest sporting event. Internally, we are calling it 'The Power of One'. I can tell you that it will be our first-ever global campaign and it’s an important part of our brand calendar. The campaign will match the scale, intensity and pride in the sport. Every single market in which McDonald’s operates will activate it a week or two prior to the World Cup and the best part is, even though it’s a global activation, it will still be relevant locally.

 

The region-wide success of the BTS Meal gave us the confidence in the power of scale and cross-market collaboration. In this emotional construct, we are putting football fans at the heart of the campaign. The message is very clear, even if you can’t agree on your football team, you can always agree on McDonald’s. You can support France, and I can support Germany, but we can always agree on McDonald’s for a meal.

 

Which agencies have worked to bring this concept to life? And what was the kind of brief given to them for this global activation?

 

Publicis Groupe and Wieden+Kennedy have worked on the campaign and OMD is on the media side. We are driven by insights for all the campaigns and this time the decision was to put the focus on the fans and not football. We wanted to do something on the people, the fans behind the game rather than the game itself. 

 

Everyone wants a bite of the metaverse. What’s in store for McDonald’s?

 

Metaverse and gaming are the buzzwords of today and you’re right, everyone wants a bite of the metaverse. There are a lot of behind-the-scenes talks happening, we are formulating a strategy but there is nothing concrete in place. We don’t want to be the first mover or jump into it immediately unless there is a proper understanding of the segment.

 

Let me give an example: Gaming is said to be a billion-dollar industry. Brands rush to include it in their strategy with cookie-cutter ads showing gamers as couch potatoes, elbow fighting with a controller in hand while sipping soda. I am a gamer myself and I shrug at how gamers are patronised in ads. This is not the way to enter a segment and it’s done by brands who don’t understand the audience at all. So, we don’t want to do it fast but do it right.

 

So, what would that entail?

 

To be honest, no one knows entirely. It could be gaming or NFTs where we create unique digital collectibles or personalised items, but at this point of time we do not have a consolidated playbook to move ahead.

 

Is the metaverse a good place to make money?

 

Currently it’s an engagement tool. I haven’t seen businesses rake in commercial success. At this point, I feel it’s an engagement tool for brands. A platform to have a presence, to delight your costumers and stay on trends. How that translates into direct sales we haven’t seen or don’t know yet. The next two years will be critical for that.

 

You became the Asia CMO right in the middle of the pandemic, overseeing 12 very diverse Asian markets. It must have been quite the baptism by fire?

 

It truly was! I stepped into the regional role, visited one market which was the Philippines and the the world turned upside down. Having been born and raised in Malaysia, I knew that market at the back of my hand and often visited the American and European markets prior to the pandemic. But not having an intimate understanding of the Asian markets was a big pain point in the initial months. Virtual interactions are all good, but you can’t truly 'know' the food scene and the people without physically being present.

 

What were the main learnings from the period?

 

In a deep crisis don’t think of innovation or new streams of revenue, instead use all efforts to focus on the core business, stay agile and follow customer demands. For us, even though we are accustomed to doing business in changing environments, the supply chain issue hit us on such an unprecedented scale that no one could have planned or predicted it. Our core business is Big Macs, McChicken, French fries and coffee—focussing on that worked well. We did not have the bandwidth, nor the logistics sorted for a new product launch for auxiliary streams of revenue.

 

McDonald’s did better than most restaurant chains during the pandemic. A big reason was your prior investment in the '3 Ds': delivery, drive-thru, and digital. Now that dine-in is back, are you still planning to double down on delivery?

 

We are definitely championing the 3 Ds further because you’re right, they gave us a competitive edge in the pandemic. And now, even though dine-in is back in full swing, how the world eats has changed dramatically. Delivery still accounts for one-third of our business in the region. That’s a big figure and has tremendous potential in the future.

 

Prior to the pandemic delivery got us 10% of our business, it shot up to 50% during the lockdowns, except for a few markets like Hong Kong where dine-in remained strong throughout the pandemic. The figure has stabilised at a new baseline of 30% now. Delivery is effectively the e-commerce for F&B, and no company can afford to ignore that shift. In fact, we’re rethinking our business model to double down on the 3 D’s and refine our marketing message to give a push to this segment.

 

How important is it for iconic legacy brands to tap their inner start-up?

 

Innovation is everything for survival, you can’t let fear stop you.

 

For us, it translates to localisation which that is a critical aspect for growth in Asia. We are a big global MNC but operate like a SME in every single market. From menus to marketing calendars, everything is tweaked and localised. Our top seller in Hong Kong is Fillet-o-Fish, it’s Mc Aloo Tikki in India, Bulgogi Burger in South Korea, McSpaghetti in Philippines: honouring every unique culinary preference in the market we operate is critical to our success.

 

Meatless options are not only environment-friendly but also good for health. Research suggests that Asia accounts for 39% of luncheon meat sales globally. In 2021, you launched meatless menus in China but soon discontinued it. Any word on its debut again or has the sizzle of McPlant fizzled for good?


We don't have any plans for meatless options in Asia at the moment. I think it’s still niche at this point, plant-based is not a fad but not accepted by the masses either. We tested and tried plant-based meat in China and more recently in Taiwan, but there wasn't any commercial success in this part of the world. Our new focus is to find chicken-based meatless options, the market for it is growing faster than for beef products. 

 
Right before the pandemic, it looked like plant-based meat is starting a food revolution but in a dramatic reversal of fortune, Beyond Meat’s stock plummeted almost 70% in 2021.

 

A year into the regional CMO’s chair: Are you lovin’ it?

 

So far, definitely. [Haha].

 

I was always a very hands-on 'market person'. And when you are in a market role, like I was in Malaysia for 11 years, the usual school of thought is that regional guys are fluff: they don’t know us or our landscape, they are more talk and less action because they have a very impractical or high level, top view of things.

 

How the tables have turned now. How are you doing things differently?

 

[Laughs]. I think my biggest strength is empathy—for people, for the market, our potential, pitfalls—everything. The micro understanding of concepts, ideas and strategies having worked in Malaysia for is a huge vantage point. At some stage, I have worked alongside most of my CMOs as peers, that gets me a lot of trust and respect. When I suggest something radical, people don’t think ‘Eugene is talking through his arse’ because they’ve seen the transformation in Malaysia, they know when I say it's doable, it really is doable. It also helps that I understand the shortcomings in certain implementations, and I find that very helpful.

 

You’ve often said that elevating and evangelising the creative index in the region is your goal. How are you faring?

 

True, it’s quality over quantity for me. We produce upwards of 20 campaigns per market per year, and sometimes this leads to a quantity approach in our marketing. My biggest goal is to flip that mindset around. Internally we have a scale for measuring the creative index for each campaign we do. Every month, every single piece of work done by all the markets in the region are brought in front of a panel of 150 marketers, both internal and external, who judge and rate the creativity and creative bravery of the campaign.

 

This helps in reflecting on the work and leads to better learning from one another. When I first joined the regional role, our score on a scale of zero to 10 was 4.8. In 2021, it improved to 5.3. Right now, we are at 5.5. My goal is to get it up to 6 or even 7. But I am happy with the constant upward trajectory, it shows we are breaking the rulebook and not adopting the cookie cutter approach.

 

Creativity or conversionas a marketer what is more important for advertising effectiveness?

 

That’s a very good question. I would say both are important, but for me, creativity and creative bravery are the undisputed king. There are lots of variables which drive the success of a campaign such as price, placement, context, reach etc. Through our own internal studies, we have found that 50% of conversions are directly linked to creativity. The remaining 50% comes from correct placement. So, we need to focus on both the aspects.

What has been your most successful campaign that still sparks inspiration?
 

It will definitely be the relaunch of Ayam Goreng, the fried chicken in Malaysia in 2017. We had this fried chicken on the menu for over 30 years but never really advertised it. It was always a silent champion driving around 15% of the sales volume which is tremendous for a product not put on the forefront. Up until that point, McDonald’s was only known for burger and KFC was the king for fried chicken, but this one campaign changed all that.

 

The brief and the concept to the advertising agency was completely different. I wanted to showcase real, regular people enjoying the fried chicken in real life settings. So, we did just that: put the camera in front of thousands of people eating the fried chicken and captured their true emotions. Like I said, creativity and placement go hand in hand. We decided to play this campaign in theatres before and after the movies; the crunch sound amplified in Dolby digital, the authenticity of the cast created a phenomenal impact. One campaign changed the perception that McDonald’s is only a burger brand. We challenged KFC in its core territory and within one week of the campaign, all the Ayam Goreng’s were sold out in Malaysia.

 

What is your favourite McDonald’s memory?

 

Eating hamburgers and riding on the slides at Mega Playland near my house. I must have been four or five at the time but clearly remember that joy of swings and fast food!

 

What’s your favourite McDonald’s food?

 

A double cheeseburger with French fries stuffed in it. Oh, and loaded with ketchup. I love it! Cheese makes everything better.

 

Share a fun fact which people don’t know about McDonald’s, a McTrivia?

 

You can ask for extra cheese on anything in the menu. Absolutely anything! And did I say cheese makes everything better?

 

Take a bold prediction: Will McDonald’s ever be known for more than burgers and fries?

 

No, at least not in my lifetime. But again, never say never: if tomorrow consumers demand  something entirely different, we will start sell that but realistically, we will always be known for our core business.


(The interview has been edited for brevity and clarity. This article first appeared on CampaignAsia.com)