It’s all part of an image makeover for the second most recognizable fictional character for American children—behind some guy who lives at the North Pole—that began last year. It coincides with a new emphasis on healthier foods at the world’s largest restaurant chain.
But while the physical and wardrobe changes might seem significant to television viewers around the world, they’re really just cosmetic, according to Bridget Coffing, vice president of corporate communications at the Oak Brook, Illinois-based McDonald’s Corporation.
“Ronald has always been a very popular goodwill ambassador and he has always personified the McDonald’s brand, being forever young and having a fun, youthful spirit,” says Coffing. “He always stood for doing the right thing, helping out friends, and he’s always been an ambassador for value-based things that are important for families and kids.
“It’s not a new Ronald, it’s a Ronald that continues to be relevant and contemporary and who credibly addresses subjects that are important, one of which is balanced lifestyles,” Coffing continues. “He empowers kids to make good choices and he encourages positive behavior.”
In an exclusive interview, Ronald, the company’s Chief Happiness Officer, says he’s proud to also be its Ambassador for Balanced, Active Lifestyles.
“Just so you know, the title might be new but my role is not. As far back as 1984, I had a show called ‘Fitness Fun’ that encouraged kids and families to be active,” he says.
In keeping with that spirit, Ronald—who became the company’s primary spokesman about the same time the Beatles came to North America—has recently been spotted trying out Winter Olympics events such as freestyle skiing, ski jumping, and pairs figure skating. That follows the diving, synchronized swimming, and hammer throw that he took up prior to the 2004 Olympics in Athens. He says he doesn’t really have a favorite sport.
“It’s whatever I’m playing at the time. I love to ski, skate, curl, and play hockey. One of my favorite sports is basketball, particularly when I have the opportunity to play against my little brother, Yao Ming. But I really like to do anything that gets you up and active. It doesn’t even have to be a sport, it can be a game, like tag,” he says.
So, in an effort to cater to people—and kids in particular—who lead an active lifestyle, McDonald’s has revamped its menu with a healthier selection of items. Old favorites such as the Big Mac and the Quarter Pounder are still there, but they’re being balanced off with salads, fruit, yogurt parfaits, juice, bottled water, and even (in selected markets) coconut water.
“We’ve sharpened the focus on menu options that meet people’s taste preferences,” says Coffing. “People mix and match their taste preferences and nutritional needs for that particular day. They’re looking for variety. But we learned in the ’90s when we introduced any number of menu items, if they don’t taste good, they’re not going to fly.”
It all led Ronald to come up with the company’s latest tag line: "It's what I eat and what I do… I’m lovin’ it."
To take the new healthy credo to a higher level, McDonald’s will have redesigned its packaging before the end of the year to include nutritional information on its entire menu. Previously, nutrients, fat content and the like were only available on selected items.
“We serve food; people should be able to ask us about it. We ramped that up in the interest of being even more transparent,” Coffing says.
McDonald’s had some high-powered help in developing its new campaign, including academics, researchers, health and fitness experts, and even former athletes, such as Jackie Joyner-Kersee.
“They said to take a more holistic approach. It’s the food you eat as well as the activities you do that are so important to people. There’s a lot of rhetoric out there, fad diets and studies. It’s a very confusing topic,” Coffing says.
So the company is leaving it up to McDonald’s biggest personality to get the message across. Make no mistake, Coffing says, Ronald is truly a celebrity. But unlike Hollywood and sports superstars, he won’t shun you if you want a picture or autograph, and you’ll never see him on the front page of supermarket tabloids or his mug shot on the evening news.
“He’s accepted and recognized by celebrities as a celebrity, but the difference is he’s an accessible celebrity,” Coffing says. “Ronald is comfortable and comforting. He’s familiar and consistent and he’s a friend. Kids know him as fun. He’s magical and that’s some of the beauty of it. He creates magical experiences for kids of all ages.”
There is no greater need for that magic than in arguably Ronald’s most critical role—the caring, comforting landlord of the Ronald McDonald House Charities. Catering to sick children in 48 countries around the world, its anchor program provides stand-alone buildings to serve as homes away from home for children undergoing serious medical treatments at local hospitals, as well as their parents and families.
Not only can the kids temporarily escape from some of their problems by having a snack and watching a movie after treatments, but the families also get to interact with others who are going through the same kind of emotional distress and trauma.
“It’s a support network, not only for the physical support but the emotional side, too, during tough times for families,” Coffing says.
There are also nearly 90 Ronald McDonald Family Rooms in hospitals in ten countries, which Coffing describes as “wonderfully decorated, warm and friendly places” for patients who don’t have the luxury of being able to leave the hospital.
“Ronald is welcomed in these environments. He’s invited to community events. In the Ronald McDonald House network, he’s known to be a responsible and trusted presence,” she says. “He’s also entertaining and a jokester.”
Ronald says putting a smile on people’s faces is his number one priority. “There’s only one Ronald McDonald and, as far as I know, one Chief Happiness Officer in the world, so I feel pretty special. Being ‘Chief’ is great, being an ‘Officer’ is great, but it’s the ‘Happiness’ part of my title that’s really important. It’s fun for me to make people happy.”