The Transubstantiation of a Cheeseburger

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Sometime back, I read the book “Fast Food Nation.”

In many places, the book is the anti-junk diatribe I expected. And it also takes pain to reveal secret histories of two American icons, McDonald’s and Disney, that are none too flattering.

However, the part where we learn how both Walt Disney and Ray Kroc found their footing in the American mindset actually left me a little more impressed than it did disgusted.

Why?

 For one thing, both never went to college. Both served in the same ambulance corps during World War II. Both could have prickly personalities. And both could be ruthless in business. But even the author of the book had to admit, both had built something out of nothing. And they did it in ways you and I could learn from.

For instance, Kroc famously got his ideas for the McDonald’s franchise while selling milkshake machines to local restaurants. And Disney got his idea for Mickey Mouse while using a garage for an art studio, since he couldn’t afford to rent a real one.

 Lots of us have ideas. Some that could set the world on fire. What’s rare is making the ideas into reality. And what’s even more rare is taking the small ideas and making them into something very large.

 One way Disney pulled it off was by virtually inventing product placement in movies and around his theme parks. Nobody else had thought to do that until Walt suggested it. Now it’s common practice.

Something else Walt did was figure out how to build a groundswell anticipation for the “magic” of Disneyland. He even turned the building of the park into a weekly show that broadcast progress updates on how the park was coming together.

 By the time he was done, Mickey and Donald and Goofy — formerly just ink on animation cells — had taken shape in people’s minds as living, breathing characters. With a home of their own, in Disneyland. A place you could visit yourself. You could become part of the fantasy.

 All from a little idea.

McDonald’s tried to do something similar. He wasn’t just another guy with a shop that made hamburgers. He tried to give his product personality, first with “Speedy the Cheeseburger” which then became “Archie McDonald” and, finally, the “Ronald McDonald” we know today (who, by the way, was originally a character invented by and played by famous weatherman Willard Scott, then deemed “too fat” to continue in the role).

Ronald McDonald, for better or worse, is more recognizable worldwide today than images of Jesus Christ. So say the marketing studies. And more than 90% of children in the U.S. can recognize the ‘golden arches’ before they can recognize their own names written on a page. (Certainly, our children can… and we try not to go there too often.)

Did McDonald’s commercials target kids? They did, alas. But at least they knew how to hit the audience… with tales of “McDonaldland,” a magical place where presumably cholesterol isn’t an issue and french fries don’t make you fat, and which prospered under the able and benevolent dictatorship of “Mayor McCheese.”

 The point: Love or hate what these two businesses have become, you can’t help but soak up the lesson: Both Kroc and Disney intuitively realized that the bigger the aura they could give their product, the bigger the space it could claim in the minds and hearts of the customers.

In other words, sometimes a cheeseburger — or a mouse or anything else — can be more than just that.

Last modified: May 19, 2017

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