On Friday, at the kind invitation of PR pro and educator extraordinaire Dr. Linda Hagan, I guest lectured a class of young artists at the Center for Creative Studies in Detroit. In fitting with the curriculum of business and marketing trends and practices, I advised the group on how best to go about creating their own brand. A significant slice of what I covered is evident in the excellent new movie, “The Founder,” starring Michael Keaton. Because when it comes to brands – iconic brands – McDonald’s best-known owner Ray Kroc was a true visionary.
I began the CCS class by asking students, ‘What constitutes a brand?’ In response I heard, ‘A logo’ and ‘A slogan’ before another chimed in with, ‘What you stand for.’ All correct, I told them, when taken together. Because, I further opined, a brand is the sum of all attributes of a particular company, product or service – it is how you answer your phones, how you treat your customers, referral sources and employees. It is how you differentiate yourself from your competition – not just in words but also by delivering upon a value proposition and brand promise.
Ray Kroc understood this as well as anyone ever. While peddling milkshake mixers to drive-ins across the country in the 1950s, he stumbled upon a little single shingle establishment in San Bernardino, California where an amazing thing was happening: families were waiting in line (and not long) for delicious hamburgers and soft drinks that took minutes from order to delivery. This was in stark contrast to the traditional drive-ins Kroc had experienced that were littered with trash, loud music and smoking teenagers in their hot rods. Food often took 30 minutes or more and orders were routinely wrong. The alternative restaurant? The brainchild of the McDonalds brothers.
McDonald’s was the model of efficiency, consistency and wholesome family dining. They offered a unique brand value proposition and delivered upon it each and every time. Kroc saw the vast opportunity to take this badly needed model across the country via franchising. He likened the golden arches to the church steeples and city hall flags he saw in every town he visited on his sales travels. These arches would add another icon to the skylines of each and every town in America, he predicted. And once these restaurant chain stores opened in their respective markets, Kroc worked tirelessly to maintain brand standards in operations, food offerings and, most importantly, customer service.
A brand, I told the class, works best when it is honest, genuine and true to who you are. As current students and future employees or entrepreneurs in the world of art and film, I offered, they needed to be true to who they were but also mindful that their brand must also keep in mind the audiences they want to reach. After all, a brand cannot be successful, ultimately, if it doesn’t resonate and compel. It must also stay open to evolution. In fact, McDonald’s has gone through decades of changes to meet evolving consumer tastes and priorities, as evidenced by their expanded menu options, dollar value meals and healthier fare. Ray Kroc didn’t found McDonald’s but he certainly honed and developed its brand, building the restaurant into arguably the greatest fast-food chain ever. And to millions starting in the Cold War era, Americana never tasted so good.