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McDonald’s has made a series of key marketing hires to its top leadership team in the past few weeks after acknowledging the function’s ‘critical’ importance in maintaining the brand’s growth post-pandemic – a U-turn from past efforts to rid it from the C-suite.

McDonald’s was not immune to the effects of Covid-19. Under the strain of global lockdown restrictions, it saw profits tumble 22% in 2020. But in that time it turned to product innovation, overhauled its digital offering and invested in marketing – leading to a complete turnaround in the first quarter of 2021 as profits soared almost 40% to $1.54bn (£1.1bn).

It needs to continue that growth trajectory and has made a series of top hires to its marketing team in recent weeks in preparation. 

First up there was the promotion of Michelle Graham-Clare to chief marketing officer in the UK last week. It was a notable move after the company previously scrapped the role when the former custodian Gareth Helm departed in 2020.

Responsibility for the region was instead given to a global marketing chief, a role also brought back after a previous attempt to rid it from the C-suite in 2019.

The decision to cull marketing leadership in the UK suggested McDonald’s felt it had all bases covered by the global position and could look at cost savings as it rode the first wave of the pandemic. However, the U-turn to reintroduce the role was described by UK chief Paul Pomroy as “critical”.

“Times have changed, and McDonald’s clearly recognizes where it needs to bolster its skills. This new role and the other senior marketing appointments shows what McDonald’s is trying to achieve going forward,” says Rik Moore, head of insight, strategy and planning at The Kite Factory. 

“It recognizes it needs someone who understands the nuance and complexities of the UK market to enable it to drive growth. Michelle Graham-Clare, being a promotion from within the organization, who even has experience of working in a McDonald’s before her career in marketing, means they get someone who lives and breathes the brand and understands every facet of what makes it unique. This will be crucial as it repels wave after wave of challenger brand incursions on its territory and forges its own way forward.”

And another vital role in forging this post-pandemic path is Manu Steijaert, who was named as the company’s first ever global chief customer officer in the same week as Graham-Clare’s promotion.

Steijaert – who’s been at McDonald’s for two decades – has taken charge of a new customer experience team, which will manage the brand’s data analytics, digital customer engagement, marketing, restaurant development and services including its drive-throughs.

“We have reached a pivotal moment when technology and data have begun to shape nearly every facet of the customer experience,” Steijaert said in a statement.

In the face of lockdown restrictions during the pandemic, McDonald’s has massively shifted its focus on to digital and e-commerce. Digital sales in the brand’s top markets reached $8bn in the first half of 2021– a 70% increase on the year prior.

Attention, then, has been squarely put on the MyMcDonald’s app, which has in excess of 22 million users, and the Rewards program introduced last month in France and the US. It has been aggressively advertising the platform, with budget continuing to pour into its promotion for the remainder of the year and into 2022 as it rolls out to other global markets.

Global chief executive Chris Kempczinski said Steijaert  has been tasked with working out "what's next" to drive a new layer of sustained growth for that digital system.

"For the past 18-months, our digital customer engagement, global marketing, data analytics, and restaurant solutions teams have worked to standardize our infrastructure, and align the system against some common frameworks," he said. 

"MyMcDonald's rewards are just the first example of how we will lead as a digital innovator, by leveraging our scale and engaging with our customers in a truly integrated way. Manu is the ideal choice to integrate these teams and take their work to the next level, with an intense focus on driving incomparable customer-centric innovation."

Moore says it clearly shows they a recognition of the challenges they will face in the new world, where ensuring the experience of the McDonald’s brand on a mobile and in delivery needs to match the point-of-sale experience they have greater control over in-store.

"Whereas the former unexpectedly came to dominate thanks to the pandemic, as restrictions relax, they need to work together,” adds Moore. “These new appointments show McDonald’s is very aware of these challenges and is upskilling to face them head on.”

It should, then, mark an end to the revolving door of chief marketers over the past two years and cement the brand’s commitment to its representation at the top table. McDonald’s wasn’t the first the experiment with removing it, and is certainly the first to row back.

“After years of having their remit chipped away at, CMOs are striking back,” says Mike Proulx, vice-president and research director at Forrester.

“Those who are successful are inextricably linking their value to the business and evolving their capabilities with data and technology to stay ahead of industry forces. I spoke with over 40 B2C CMOs this past year and almost all of them identify their primary role as being ‘the voice of the customer’,” he explains.

“The pandemic forced companies to (finally) prioritize customer experience. Forrester survey data of marketing leaders shows that CX is their top strategic priority over the next two years. But it has to start at the top. Those CEOs who recognize that all customer experiences are indeed brand experiences will view their CMOs as business-critical and embolden marketing as the engine of customer obsession.”