The Great McDonald’s Hamburglar Debate: Marketing Genius Or Brand Failure?

The fast food brand’s burg­er ban­dit is back – but not all mar­keters are lov­ing it.

Lisa Lacy By Lisa Lacy. Join the discussion » 0 comments

Just when you thought it was safe to eat at McDonald’s in peace, the fast food giant has intro­duced a revamped ver­sion of its Ham­bur­glar char­ac­ter – with a “chis­eled jaw” and “just the right amount of stub­ble,” no less – along with its lim­it­ed edi­tion Sir­loin Third Pound Burg­ers. Pub­lic (and media) opin­ion on the new Ham­bur­glar is mixed — from “hot sub­ur­ban dad” and, “Help, I have a crush on the Ham­bur­glar” to “a dad who picked the lamest cos­tume at Par­ty City” — but what do mar­keters think?


The brand has post­ed tons of social con­tent, includ­ing a want­ed ad for the new Ham­bur­glar, who, nat­u­ral­ly, then took over McDonald’s Twit­ter account with the hash­tag #Rob­bleR­ob­ble, which has since been used about 1500 times over­all, per Top­sy. And McDonald’s has been ask­ing its 2.8 mil­lion fol­low­ers for help find­ing him, with the burg­er ban­dit even hop­ping over to Snapchat when things got a lit­tle too heat­ed on Twit­ter.

Is McDonald’s new asset a stroke of genius or a brand mis­step? We asked a dozen mar­ket­ing experts and they’re divid­ed.

Regard­less of where they stand in the Great Ham­bur­glar Debate, many point to an aura of mys­tique sur­round­ing this new Ham­bur­glar and ask who McDonald’s is tar­get­ing with it, where the brand will go with it, and whether the brand will revive any of its oth­er char­ac­ters.

Their opin­ions fol­low in full.


The New Hamburglar: A Stroke Of Marketing Genius

Nic Mayne, founder and principal, Mayne Marketing

Nic Mayne Mayne MarketingWhile “all press is good press” is a bit of a stretch, I think a vari­a­tion of that applies here.

Regard­less of how cheesy the cos­tume or char­ac­ter itself may be, or how awk­ward the videos are, peo­ple are talk­ing and that puts the brand in front of peo­ple.

Isn’t that what mar­ket­ing is all about?


Michael Goldrich, vice president of digital marketing and e-commerce, Dolce Hotels

Michael Goldrich Dolce HotelsIt is genius for the fol­low­ing rea­sons:

  1. We are talk­ing about McDonald’s.
  2. They’ve updat­ed a past sta­ple of the com­pa­ny. It gets peo­ple to think how else is McDonald’s evolv­ing. Maybe their menu also has improved and is pos­si­bly more healthy.
  3. It also reflects dad and his naughty side. Stereo­typ­i­cal­ly, moms want the kids to eat healthy. Going for fast food and feed­ing kids junk food is going against mom and break­ing the healthy eat­ing rules. In essence the dad is the Ham­bur­glar in this sce­nario.

Apryl DeLancey, president, Social Age Media

Apryl DeLancey Social Age MediaI’d say it’s genius but not like­ly in the way they meant it. That is, unless they intend­ed to cre­ate a char­ac­ter that peo­ple would find hot, find creepy and debate about.

One has to won­der if they’ll roll out more “live” char­ac­ters.

It’s def­i­nite­ly an inter­est­ing change.


Brynn Winegard, principal, Winegard & Company

Brynn Winegard WinegardThe new Ham­bur­glar cam­paign has peo­ple every­where won­der­ing what McDonald’s had in mind launch­ing this new cam­paign…

Which is what makes it effec­tive.

It’s just weird and eye­brow rais­ing enough to cut through the prover­bial clut­ter and get peo­ple talk­ing – and, of course, more impor­tant­ly – tweet­ing about it.

Today, the only mar­ket­ing com­mu­ni­ca­tions worth hav­ing is mar­ket­ing that is dis­sem­i­nat­ed via word of mouth (WOM), peer-to-peer (P2P), because it allows for two crit­i­cal ingre­di­ents to infor­ma­tion trans­fer:

  1. Source cred­i­bil­i­ty: You trust your friends and the peo­ple you fol­low on Twit­ter.
  2. Mes­sage authen­tic­i­ty: You don’t doubt that they mean what they are say­ing about the cam­paign.

P2P WOM is the most impor­tant and indige­nous to none oth­er than the mil­len­ni­als.

Last year, 84 per­cent of peo­ple who had chil­dren in North Amer­i­ca were mil­len­ni­als – the same folks that were raised on McDonald’s, Ronald McDon­ald, Kids Hap­py Meals and the orig­i­nal Ham­bur­glar. These cra­dle-to-grave con­sumers might not be loy­al­ists, but they are cer­tain­ly like­ly to be head­ing back to a McDonald’s in the com­ing years – this time at the behest of their own chil­dren!

Mil­len­ni­als don’t wield as much eco­nom­ic pow­er as their par­ents (the Boomers), but they take dou­ble-income fam­i­lies as a must, care a lot about careers and income and know how to use mobile tech­nol­o­gy to tweet, talk and mes­sage (some­thing many of their par­ents are miss­ing).

What more impact­ful time, there­fore, for McDonald’s to launch a “ques­tion­able” social media cam­paign that will get this young, tech­no­log­i­cal­ly enabled, mobile-device-addict­ed gen­er­a­tion talk­ing and tweet­ing to one anoth­er…? In fact, it’s not only intel­li­gent­ly craft­ed, and we can assume designed to be such, it’s like­ly evi­dence of what we are going to see more of in the future from McDonald’s and any brand that is look­ing to dri­ve aware­ness and P2P WOM adver­tis­ing.

Oh, and if the social media cam­paigns raise enough eye­brows, “inter­est,” or at least inquiry to get more than the mil­len­ni­als talk­ing – more (brand) pow­er to them.


Carly Fauth, head of marketing, Money Crashers

Carly Fauth MoneycrashersIs this a stroke of mar­ket­ing genius? It depends upon who you ask. In the media, it’s been panned as being out­dat­ed. But, it’s received a great reac­tion on social media, espe­cial­ly amongst younger folks.

I like it – he is younger and more hip than before, and he also comes with a sto­ry cre­at­ed by McDonald’s that he has been a Dad liv­ing in the sub­urbs for the past 10 years or so.

It isn’t a mar­ket­ing fail. At the very least, it’s got peo­ple talk­ing about McDonald’s more.

It goes back to the mar­ket­ing adage that any press is good press. Sales have fall­en rather sig­nif­i­cant­ly for McDonald’s recent­ly, espe­cial­ly in the younger demo­graph­ic. Any­thing it can do to get folks to talk more about their busi­ness is a shrewd move.


Bill Fish, president, ReputationManagement.com

Bill Fish Reputation ManagementThe new Ham­bur­glar is com­plete genius. I love read­ing about it, peo­ple find him creepy, peo­ple say it reminds them of “50 Shades of Grey”, peo­ple won­der who in the world McDonald’s is mar­ket­ing to with this char­ac­ter?

What is so great thus far is how vague every­thing is. The short videos released on Twit­ter are just bizarre, tak­ing calls from his wife while hid­ing out at McDonald’s?

What I real­ly hope is that they let it play out for a long time leav­ing every­one won­der­ing exact­ly their strat­e­gy is with the Ham­bur­glar. Right now, the inter­est is because peo­ple don’t grasp exact­ly what McDonald’s is try­ing to do.

For such a large com­pa­ny, it’s a strange mar­ket­ing tech­nique, but it’s great. I mean, Time Mag­a­zine did a piece on essen­tial­ly what is a guy wear­ing a Lone Ranger mask and a fun­ny hat.

The cam­paign obvi­ous­ly wasn’t cost­ly, and it’s get­ting peo­ple talk­ing, and it’s also sub­lim­i­nal­ly get­ting peo­ple to think about their youth and the orig­i­nal Ham­bur­glar, and prob­a­bly time they spent at McDonald’s. I’m excit­ed to see where they take it.


The New Hamburglar: A Marketing Failure

Megan Hartman, head of strategy, Red Peak Youth

Megan Hartman Red Peak YouthThe Ham­bur­glar is a mar­ket­ing fail because McDonald’s missed an oppor­tu­ni­ty to bring the orig­i­nal Ham­bur­glar back.

We’ve seen mil­len­ni­als respond real­ly well to nos­tal­gic mar­ket­ing that brings back char­ac­ters of their youth (Kraft with Vanil­la Ice and Microsoft’s ‘90s ad).

McDonald’s would have been bet­ter suit­ed play­ing up the nos­tal­gia of the orig­i­nal Ham­bur­glar rather than rein­vent­ing him.


Ian Fitzpatrick, chief strategy officer, Almighty

Ian Fitzpatrick AlmightyThe re-intro­duc­tion of the Ham­burg­er is such an odd moment of meh from a brand that’s doing so many oth­er things well. How­ev­er fleet­ing­ly tum­blr-able he might be, he feels odd­ly under-pro­duced and thrown-togeth­er. The brand is doing so much right at the moment — stream­lin­ing its dri­ve-thru menu, lim­it­ing new prod­uct intro­duc­tions — that I’m not sure where he fits in to the sto­ry of where McDonald’s is head­ed (nor was he ever real­ly all that inte­gral to the brand’s past). Until some­one can explain how he improves the expe­ri­ence of, or enthu­si­asm for, being a McDonald’s cus­tomer, he just feels tacked-on.


Guy Martin Smalley, founder, Bowery Creative

Guy Smalley Bowery CreativeI’m not lovin’ it.

It’s safe to say that the new Ham­bur­glar is a dis­as­ter. Chil­dren love ani­ma­tion, and 30- to 40-year-olds love nos­tal­gia — this seems almost engi­neered to be as unap­peal­ing as pos­si­ble to their main demo­graph­ic.

The ques­tion becomes: What next? This is a great oppor­tu­ni­ty for McDonald’s to show how nim­ble they are. A quick “you spoke – we lis­tened” cam­paign could do won­ders for them here. But per­haps that was the plan all along…


Jim Angleton, president, Aegis

Jim Angleton AegisThe Ham­bur­glar will be anoth­er fail­ure for McDonald’s.

McDonald’s appears to be grasp­ing for recog­ni­tion, to [rein­vent] itself, and to take into con­sid­er­a­tion pre­vi­ous food/menu issues, earn­ings, and social media buzz.

When you play defense mar­ket­ing, it shows.

Pre­dic­tion: Ham­bur­glar is per­ceived as lame and a bore to youth and a dis­con­nect with their par­ents.


LJ Jones, senior analyst, Partner Fusion

LJ Jones Partner FusionThe Ham­bur­glar at first appears to be a win but ulti­mate­ly it’s a fail. Let me explain:

The Ham­bur­glar looks like a win because it’s get­ting us talk­ing about McDonald’s. Blog­gers are blog­ging, Twit­ter is tweet­ing, arti­cles are being writ­ten. There is a lot of buzz. But the ulti­mate mea­sure of suc­cess is whether it increas­es sales.

Just because peo­ple are buzzing about some­thing doesn’t mean that peo­ple are will­ing to buy. Take for exam­ple, William Hung. Hung was a con­tes­tant on “Amer­i­can Idol”. Every­one was buzzing about him. Blog­gers blogged, Twit­ter tweet­ed. But did any­one buy his album? No. Buzz does not equal sales.

McDonald’s prob­lems are far greater than the buzz about an old Hap­py Meal char­ac­ter can solve. Their busi­ness mod­el is strug­gling and the Ham­bur­glar won’t save it.


The New Hamburglar: A Genius Failure

Paul Matthews, account manager, Arbor Bay Marketing

Paul Matthews Arbor BayThe Ham­bur­glar is suc­cess­ful – if the point is to build up a dif­fer­ent face for the brand of McDonald’s. He is way bet­ter than a creepy white-paint­ed-face clown with obnox­ious red hair.

At least with the Ham­bur­glar we can see that he has a face and isn’t going to poten­tial­ly eat us like that creepy clown does in Stephen King’s “It.” Clowns get a bad rap in the cur­rent social stratos­phere, but a hand­some guy in a mask…it works.

But is bur­glary some­thing that is a pos­i­tive image? McDonald’s may get back­lash about the thiev­ery aspect of the char­ac­ter if they dwell on him too much.


What’s your take on the new Ham­bur­glar?

Lisa Lacy

Written by Lisa Lacy

Lisa is a senior features writer for Inked. She also previously covered digital marketing for Incisive Media. Her background includes editorial positions at Dow Jones, the Financial Times, the Huffington Post, AOL, Amazon, Hearst, Martha Stewart Living and the Dian Fossey Gorilla Fund.

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