At its shareholder meeting Thursday, McDonald's newly appointed CEO Steve Easterbrook announced the company's intention to keep Ronald McDonald around — and his reasons for doing so are sort of baffling.
That's because Easterbrook said he is also trying to turn McDonald's into “a modern, progressive burger and breakfast company delivering a contemporary customer experience."
Ronald McDonald was born in the early '60s, a time when clowns were no less (and arguably more) terrifying, though somehow more socially acceptable, presumably because there was no Internet yet. While we know of no one who's quantified Ronald's value to the company, his presence coincided with the company's rise to global domination in the following decades, so there was little incentive to dump him.
Those tensions were articulated at the meeting by Casey Hinds, a member of advocacy group Corporate Accountability International. She brought photos of Ronald, whom she referred to as "the Joe Camel of fast food," appearing at her son's school as evidence the company had misled her when it said last year's such appearances had stopped.
"You want to be seen as a modern progressive, burger company, but progressive corporations don’t use schools as ads or tell kids that fast food is 'loving.'"
Doing so — and then allegedly lying about it — was also hurting the company's image, she said.
"It’s the kind of disrespect that results in loss of brand trust, and why moms and millennials are leaving the corporation behind," she said. "Your reputation as a bad corporate actor is reflected in your slipping sales, and your turnaround plan addresses none of these substantial issues."
“Ronald is here to stay,” Easterbrook responded — to applause from others at the meeting.
He continued: “Let’s just realize what this is all about. It’s about fun, it’s about the magic shows, it’s about putting smiles on people’s faces.”
He also noted the company had updated Ron's wardrobe last year, and joked that he now looked "trendier than ever." Here's what he now looks like:
While Ronald is not the only marketing campaign the company has going, one could argue — as Hinds does — that his continued presence could alienate both the company's traditional base of young families, who are now as health conscious as they are budget conscious, and young adults who are flocking to Chipotle and Five Guys.
Sam Oches, editor of Quick-Serve Magazine, said it was likely the company's internal research still showed Ronald could bring value to the company, and also that there is nothing inherently wrong with making children a target audience.
But he said the debate does reflect the dilemma McDonald's now finds itself in.
"I think that any company that is 60 years old like McDonald's is going to find it a challenge, while also holding onto the legacy they’ve created, [to figure] out how they can evolve," he said.
Rob covers business, economics and the environment for Fusion. He previously worked at Business Insider. He grew up in Chicago.