McDonald’s "Pay With Lovin’" Campaign: A Cautionary Tale of Good PR Gone Wrong

During this year’s Super Bowl, McDonald’s ran a very interesting commercial, not about a special new sandwich or other changes to the fast-food giant’s menu, but about how customers may be able to pay for the items on that menu. Dubbed “Pay With Lovin”, this new promotion allows select customers to pay for their order with kindness of some kind. As shown in the ad, you can make a call to a family member and tell them that you love them, give someone a compliment, or even do a little dance in exchange for your Big Mac and fries. The ad itself is actually very well done and touching, and the entire campaign is an interesting change from a company that is certainly not seen in a favorable light by many consumers (McDonald’s is always at or near the top of “Worst Fast-Food Restaurant” surveys and lists). In this article, we will take a look at why this new promotion from McDonald’s is a good move for the company and what we may be able to learn from this campaign.

The perception of McDonald's

When someone says “McDonald’s” to you, what do you immediately think of? If your answer is “cheap, low-quality food”, then you are not alone. Right or wrong, McDonald’s has long been known by many for inexpensive, mediocre food. The company’s decisions over the years, like their “value menu” of very low cost items, has certainly contributed to this perception. Today, restaurants like Chipotle and Panera continue to grow in popularity by offering customers quick service, but with better quality (and more expensive) meal options than the traditional fast-food restaurants offer. These restaurants, often known as “Fast-Casual”, have taken business away from McDonalds while further cementing their place as the go-to location for that aforementioned “cheap food.” So how does McDonald’s start to move away from this negative perception of their brand – they begin by changing the conversation.

Changing the conversation

McDonald’s latest promotion has nothing to do with their food or their prices, the two things for which they are most commonly known in negative light. This “Pay With Lovin” campaign is all about fun and good feelings. It is part contest, part giveaway, and part customer appreciation event all rolled into one.  The campaign itself is a very interesting experiment. Between February 2nd and the 14th, each participating McDonald’s location will have 100 total “prizes”, with a select number of customers selected by random each day. Those random customers will be given the opportunity to “Pay With Lovin” and use a fun expression of kindness instead of money when they are ordering their meal. There is excitement to this promotion as customers wonder if they will be chosen for this “Pay With Lovin” opportunity. It also provides McDonalds with a great way to connect with those customers in a way that they have never done before. In an article on, McDonald’s Chief Marketing officer, Deborah Wahl, says, “We’re on a journey of transformation and a key part of that journey is how we engage with our customers.” McDonalds realizes that to change the negative perception of their brand, they need to change the conversation, and they are starting that change by interacting with their customers in a fun way that is designed to make people feel good.

People are talking

Another great aspect of this promotion is that people are talking about McDonalds – and it is not in a negative way! The company has given customers something to get excited about and something to share with others. That moment of delight when a customer is informed that they can “Pay With Lovin”, and the fun that happens from that event, is something people can enjoy and then share on social media by telling others about the experience. This will further spread the good cheer and the positive vibes for a brand that has seen far too few of those in recent years. The fact that people are being nice and kind as part of this campaign just adds to the positive vibes of the promotion, and while I am sure there will be the occasional sourpuss who will refuse to engage in this idea (you can’t please everyone, no matter how hard you try), the majority of customers who are told their order is free if they simply spread some love will be happy to do so!

What’s next?

So changing the conversation is a great start for McDonalds, but what comes next? This promotion, as innovative as it is, is a short term initiative. Once this campaign is over, McDonald’s will be back to being known as that cheap, low quality fast food restaurant unless they make some additional moves in their business. If they want to truly change the conversation in the long term, they need to build on what they have started here – but at least they have found a place to start.

What can we learn?

So what marketing lessons can we take away from McDonald’s “Pay With Lovin” campaign?
  1. If people are speaking negatively about your brand, finding a way to change the conversation is a good start to changing perception.
  2. If you want to change the conversation, start with your existing customers and change how they talk and think about your company.
  3. Engaging customers in ways that are fun and unique will get people excited and talking, which encourages them to tell others about their experience. The more people they tell, the quicker the conversation around your brand moves towards the positive.
  4. A campaign like this is a great start, but if you have larger problems, you still need to fix those issues or risk falling back exactly to where you were before your campaign began.