Guest blog by Daphne Wood, director of planning and organizational development for the Vancouver Public Library.
According to the October 9, 2013 edition of Advertising Age, McDonald’s was poised to become the top North American book publisher for the month of November, distributing 20 million of its self-published titles to children. “The chain, which typically offers toys in its kids meals, will package four original children's books carrying a nutritional message Nov. 1 through Nov. 14 with its Happy Meals, the beginning of a massive children's book push expected to last for several years,” reported Maureen Morrison. In effect, McDonald’s will have distributed 5 million more books than the best-selling “Hunger Games” trilogy of 2012.
This marketing effort is a strategic mix of the four Ps – Product, Price, Place and Promotion. The product, the now ubiquitous Happy Meal, was a true innovation when it launched in 1979. Incorporating a toy with existing menu items created great demand among young consumers, and continues to do so more than 30 years later. The price is described as “an affordable treat” and purchased by millions for $3.99 (plus tax). The place is highly accessible, available in more than 1,417 restaurants in Canada and 34,492 locations around the world. And finally, the promotion. In the first half of 2013, McDonald’s spent $23.7 million on marketing efforts in the U.S. For Happy Meals alone.
Giving away free books is not a new concept. Libraries have done it in the past, and are doing it today. But the strategy behind the promotion is both complex and fascinating. Rather than distributing existing children’s books, McDonald’s ad agency wrote each of the four stories using familiar McDonald’s characters and a strong underlying message: a balanced diet is important for your health.  For the “born digital” generation, a virtual connection extends the reading experience. Each Happy Meal box invited kids (and their parents) to check out McDonald’s eBook collection and to download their app on iTunes.
McDonalds has more than 15,000 restaurants in the U.S. and Canada – that’s a lot of Happy Meals served over a two-week period. But they are not alone in this ambitious venture. Both the physical and virtual reading campaigns are endorsed through a partnership with a respected US-based literacy organization, Reading is Fundamental (RIF). It is an arrangement that certainly prompted a few questions from the public. “We need to reach families where they are,” explained Carol Rasco, the president and chief executive of RIF. “We feel we need to look at as many angles as possible to reach children. We need to find new ways to influence parents.” She further described McDonald’s as “a comfortable atmosphere” for many of the families RIF hopes to reach.
The atmosphere of public libraries has certainly been described as comfortable and welcoming. Unfortunately, it can also be perceived as intimidating and perplexing. We know this from our own community consultations, and we’re working hard to reduce barriers. In large part, we invest in our physical and virtual locations and make accessible service a top priority. To some extent, we are reaching those who are underserved by going directly to where they are, in addition to inviting them to come to us. We are making more inroads with non-traditional partners, particularly those who are convinced public libraries benefit everyone – not just those who use them.
Comparing the library to McDonald’s may seem a bit odd – after all, we’re clearly not in the same business. But the library’s social marketing goals could be better supported with innovative ideas, no matter their origin. The partnership between RIF and McDonald’s generated a great deal of media coverage, to their mutual benefit.
RIF became part of the 20-million book distribution plan – unprecedented reach for an organization with modest means and the ambitious mandate to improve literacy. The promotion placed a book (albeit one written by McDonald’s) into the hands of children. For some, the first book of their own. And for reluctant readers, children and parents alike, books were introduced in a familiar place where families regularly visit. RIF hopes the combination of “food, folks and fun” leads to new relationships with reading.
Bold marketing opportunities require careful thought and skilled execution. Partnering with a company such as McDonald’s may not be possible or in fact desirable for every public library, its governing board and its patrons. But challenging the status quo of our marketing efforts and evaluating effectiveness are worthy goals we can all pursue. We need to aim high. Billions and billions served…at your public library. I like the sound of that. Vocal critics of the company have long raised concerns about the nutritional value of soft drinks, cookies and fries. Marketing the Happy Meal has changed, and so has the product itself. It now contains yogurt, options for apple slices, milk, juice or even a grilled cheese sandwich.
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