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Marketing Strategy

McDonald's, Walmart on the ROI upside of creative paths to purchase

A lion head on a man's body eating a slice of watermelon with a pixelated magnifying glass and data field in front of it, and a browser window with an ocean background behind it.

Illustration by Robyn Phelps / Getty / Shutterstock / The Current

Last holiday season, Walmart launched its own romantic comedy series Add to Heart, which it said was the first ever fully shoppable rom-com. The company even gave the category its own name: “RomCommerce.” Across 23 episodes, viewers could seamlessly buy 338 products on TikTok, YouTube or Roku.

It’s safe to say the results spread holiday cheer all across the Walmart offices. The movie (commercial? short series?) earned a billion impressions the first week it was released and led to 425% more site traffic than what the company projected. The retail giant shared that story on the Cannes stage this year during a talk titled “Creative Impact Unpacked: How Do Creativity, Media and Commerce Combine?”

Walmart is just one example of many brands that are fusing commerce and creativity. Silos are clearly breaking down between creativity and business outcomes, as evidenced by it being a recurring theme during this year’s Cannes Lions festival.

“Over the last few years at WARC, we’ve noticed an evolving and converging relationship between advertising and commerce,” Alex Brownsell, head of content at WARC Media, said during the talk with Walmart. “Creativity, media, commerce — these are things that over the last few decades have been generally handled fairly separately…But that’s changing, and we think at WARC that is potentially changing for the better for brands.”

Brownsell believes technology and changes in consumer behavior are key drivers to this evolution, as brands need to be available whenever potential buyers want to strike.

“There is no longer a linear purchase journey,” Jill Toscano, Walmart’s head of media, said onstage. “And we believe that every opportunity is a moment for serendipitous discovery. And when you understand that brand storytelling and retail performance don’t have to be at odds with one another and are in fact most powerful when paired together, then we can seize the opportunity to both inspire and sell.”

McDonald’s strategy also brings credence to Brownsell’s and Toscano’s thinking. The restaurant brand’s CMO Morgan Flatley said during a panel at Cannes that understanding its audience is one of the most crucial marketing strategies it employs, with data as a key cog in that understanding.

Flatley was joined onstage by the company’s CFO, Ian Borden, who described how measurement data creates a stronger relationship between the marketing and business sides.

“A few years ago, marketing was a bit of a black box,” Borden said. “A bit of a nebulous part of our organization, to a situation today where we have full transparency and visibility. We have full alignment across the organization on how we talk about results, about how we measure results.”

That transparency led Borden to say McDonald’s marketing contribution grew its top-line results in the U.S. by over two-and-a-half times in five years. Worldwide, McDonald’s has seen a $30 billion growth in sales over the last five years, according to Borden, noting marketing as a key contributor to those results.

“When we immerse our brand in culture and we connect with consumers in culturally relevant ways, that’s going to drive really strong outcomes,” Borden said.

Case in point was the Grimace Shake going viral last year. Absurd reactions videos of people celebrating Grimace’s birthday spread like wildfire, and it was hard to not find them scrolling through feeds. Flatley said around 20% of sales from that limited release came from earned media, as creative spins turned into bottom-line results.

More and more, brands are focusing on creating an entertaining customer journey. And in the fragmented and distracted world we all live in, anything that holds consumer attention and drives sales is considered a major win. Still, Borden believes taking creative risk has to be backed up by measurable data of what the brand’s audience wants and what strategy will best sell the product.

“Sometimes having really sharp metrics and key performance indicators can make people feel it’s going to stifle creativity, but we found that completely opposite,” Jill McDonald, McDonald’s president of internationally owned markets, said onstage. “It actually liberates creativity because we’re aligned on what we’re trying to achieve, both within the organization and with our agency partners.”