The era of the celebrity meal


One Friday afternoon in the spring of 2020, Hope Bagozzi, marketing director for the Canadian coffee chain Tim Hortons, was on a Zoom call with representatives from Justin Bieber.

The agenda for the meeting? Exploration of a possible partnership between the two great Canadians.

The call went off as usual, but took a surreal turn when suddenly, Ms. Bagozzi recalled, a black box that had remained silent on the screen lit up, revealing Mr. Bieber himself. He said how much he loved eating Timbits, the restaurant’s bite-size donuts. At one point, Mr. Bieber pulled out a guitar to perform a song about Tim Hortons that he used to sing to his siblings.

“I was texting my husband saying, ‘Justin Bieber is singing for us,’” Ms. Bagozzi said with a laugh. “You could have knocked me off my chair. “

The result of the call was Timbiebs, a limited edition line of flavored donut holes imagined by the pop star and in-house chef at Tim Hortons, which includes a chocolate fondant and a birthday cake waffle. They hit restaurants in November.

Welcome to the era of the celebrity happy meal. Fast food companies are scrambling to align their products with supernova musicians and influencers in the hopes their dishes will appeal to a younger audience. For consumers, it’s a relatively cheap and easy way to connect with their favorite celebrities or influencers.

Many megastars that companies court are more than willing to cooperate, sometimes initiating the partnerships themselves. After seeing Mr. Bieber’s deal, Michael Bublé posted a TikTok video to suggest his own donut-based collaboration: Bublébits.

Dunkin teamed up with Charli D’Amelio. There was a Lil Huddy meal at Burger King. Megan Thee Stallion has her own sauce with Popeyes Louisiana Kitchen (called “hottie sauce”, of course). McDonald’s created meals with Saweetie, BTS, J Balvin, and Travis Scott. In November, eight people were killed and dozens injured during Mr. Scott’s performance at the Astroworld festival in Houston. The artist’s partnership with McDonald’s ended in 2020, according to the company.

This month, McDonald’s partnered with Christmas Queen herself, Mariah Carey, to promote 12 days of deals on her favorite items, available only through the channel’s app. Despite the fact Ms Carey has previously said she only ate Norwegian salmon and capers, the artist’s favorite foods at McDonald’s apparently include Big Macs, buns and chocolate chip cookies.

This trend towards partnerships is proving to be a boon for restaurants and celebrities, analysts and observers say. It also helps businesses better understand the behavior of young consumers.

For some chains, celebrities are a powerful lure that can trick customers into downloading restaurant apps or joining loyalty programs to get meals, discounts, or even free food. During its celebrity meal campaigns, which began in September 2020, McDonald’s saw 10 million downloads of its app, a significant jump.

“It’s very clear that McDonald’s is using celebrities to attract the younger generation to its app as a great point of contact for engagement” with Gen Z, said Lauren Hockenson, product marketing manager at Sensor Tower, who tracks app downloads and ad spending.

By offering rewards and a loyalty program, she said, McDonald’s “is hoping the same consumer will come back to the app and find McDonald’s a cool, savvy, and hip place to grab food.”

These celebrity partnerships also help brands access sites where millions of digital natives spend a lot of time: Instagram, TikTok, and other social media platforms.

“If you think about the target we’re focusing on, which is youth and youth culture, that’s where they live,” said Jennifer Healan, vice president of US marketing, branded content and commitment to McDonald’s.

Even before Dunkin ‘teamed up with Charli D’Amelio, it was clear to her TikTok subscribers (of whom there are currently over 130 million) that the 17-year-old brunette loved the channel’s drinks; she frequently posted videos and clips of herself sipping coffee, dancing or showing off her outfit of the day. “There wasn’t a day she wouldn’t leave without her Dunkin ‘,” said Ali Berman, digital talent manager and partner of United Talent Agency, which represents Ms. D’Amelio.

In September 2020, when Dunkin ‘debuted with Charli – a Dunkin’ cold brew coffee with whole milk and three caramel swirl pumps – and Ms. D’Amelio announced the drink on her social media platforms , the result was a daily activity record. Users of the Dunkin ‘app, company executives said on an earnings call last year. (The company did not respond to requests for comment.)

For Dunkin, the partnership was simple. The company didn’t have to spend weeks or months brewing new flavored coffees or coming up with smart new names. “We took an existing product, renamed it to their name and positioned it to appeal to a younger consumer,” Scott Murphy, president of Dunkin ‘Americas, said on the same conference call. (Dunkin ‘then introduced another D’Amelio drink, the Charli Cold Foam, which was simply the Charli with cinnamon sugar and cold foam added.)

TikTok was quickly inundated with free promotions for Dunkin ‘, as young people posted videos of themselves sipping Charlis. Likewise, when McDonald’s was selling his Travis Scott meal, the rapper’s fans recorded videos of themselves blowing up his song “Sicko Mode” as they ordered, then shared the videos on TikTok.

“Young people are becoming these unwitting marketers,” said Frances Fleming-Milici, director of marketing initiatives for the Rudd Center for Food Policy and Health at the University of Connecticut. “Businesses don’t have to pay for this organic content and all the TikToks people make.”

Often times, the advertising that comes from engagement on social media is the focus of these campaigns. Megan Thee Stallion announced her partnership with Popeyes, which is owned by Restaurant Brands International, last October with a five-minute YouTube video, “Hottie Sauce Mukbang”. On Instagram, she shared a video of her best friends ordering and trying the sauce.

Even before the sauce was available in Popeyes restaurants, “we started to see an immediate reaction from people just by posting it and releasing the press kit,” said Bruno Cardinali, Marketing Director at Popeyes. . “Social networks were the thing in this campaign.

These app downloads and registrations also allow fast food companies to collect customer data. Restaurant chains like McDonald’s try to track how customers order and specifically determine where, what time, how often and how they pay, said Kelly Martin, a professor of marketing at Colorado State University who studies the issues of confidentiality of customer data.

Starbucks has been particularly successful with its loyalty rewards program, Dr. Martin said. “With the customer data they were able to collect through their program, they were able to dramatically increase value per customer. “

The goal of collecting data for most restaurants is to change customer behavior. It could be used to send push notifications with special offers designed to keep customers coming back to the restaurant more frequently or buying more items when they return, said Kate Hogenson, senior consultant at Mallett Group, a loyalty advice. She sees it as a good thing in this case.

The interests of these companies and their clients are “aligned at this time,” Ms. Hogenson said. “If I’m McDonald’s and I’m interested in this Saweetie meal and it attracts people, now I want them to join my loyalty program and I’ll follow them better, but I’ll reward them with free stuff. “

Critics say the partnerships, which have been largely targeted at a younger audience, should be geared toward healthier food options. An average order of Ms. D’Amelio’s cold frothy drink at Dunkin ‘contains 50 grams of sugar. The Lil Huddy meal at Burger King doesn’t end with a spicy chicken sandwich and mozzarella sticks, it also comes with a chocolate shake. Including the shake, it contains over 2,400 calories and almost 100 grams of fat.

“Celebrity mentions are especially powerful with children,” said Josh Golin, executive director of Fairplay, a nonprofit focused on how marketing affects children. “They’re starting to associate this celebrity with the brand, and they want this junk food even when it’s not directly announced to them.”

Indeed, while children may be able to discern an advertisement for a product that interrupts a TV show, the lines become blurry for them when it comes to paid social media content, Golin said. It can be difficult for kids to guard against promoting an influencer they follow, he added.

Spokesmen for McDonald’s and Restaurant Brands International, which own Popeyes, Burger King and Tim Hortons, have said in emails that they responsibly market to children under 12 and offer more options. healthy. “When it comes to our celebrity-inspired meals, we understand that they can be popular with younger customers and our intention is that they are enjoyed as a treat during the limited time they are on offer,” Leslie added. Walsh, spokesperson for Restaurant Marques Internationales.

Celebrities and fast food brands wouldn’t say how much money celebrities are making from these offers, and the people contacted for this article declined to respond.

This kind of success means that this trend is not going to go away any time soon. Indeed, for the celebrity and influencer class, the links are endless.

When A3 Artists Agency agents discovered one of their clients, YouTuber Larray, who worked at Subway as a teenager, they instantly thought: partnership.

According to Jade Sherman, partner and head of digital for the agency: “We reached out to Subway and we were like, ‘You have to do something. “”


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