October 29th, 2008

Happy World

By Brian Quinton
PROMO Magazine

Okay, trivia buffs: What was the first movie property to appear in a McDonald’s Happy Meal promotion?

If you said the original “Star Wars” back in 1979, the force is strong with you. Two years after the McDonald’s Happy Meal was invented to make the chain a more kid-friendly place, Star Wars-themed meals included a series of comics based on the movie, and images and games from the movie on the boxes.

Just shy of 30 years later, the quick-service chain ran a September Happy Meal promotion that took kids once again to that galaxy far, far away, with a tie-in to the animated release of “Star Wars: Attack of the Clones.” But this time players got to do something better than use their crayons to help Luke Skywalker through the maze to find R2D2. Instead, they were able to go online, log into a new virtual world that was added to the site over the summer, and use product codes from the Happy Meal packaging to access features and game challenges built around the Star Wars characters.

“We saw the virtual world as a great way to extend the fun of the fast-meal experience for kids into their homes and online,” says Rebecca Anderson, marketing manager for McDonald’s USA. “We saw how kids were reacting to virtual worlds launching on other Web sites and with other brands. And with our brand and our licensing partnerships, we saw this as a chance to something very cool and unique that only McDonald’s could do.”

And it’s something the kid audience was primed for, too. Children have taken to virtual worlds in a big way, from Club Penguin, acquired by Disney for $350 million last year, to character-driven worlds like Nickelodeon’s Nicktropolis. They’ve also become smitten with toys that bridge online and offline, such as Webkinz, plush dolls that include an access code to a virtual world that saw 4.1 million visitors in May 2007. Right now both Barbie and Bratz coexist as fashion dolls and virtual-world avatars.

The HappyMeal.com site grew up in 2005 and was originally designed as a place for kids to find out about upcoming promotions and to discover some games and real-world play suggestions. Last year the site added some interactive features, such as e-cards and shout-outs, that were available only to registered users.

“Kids have a lot of love for Happy Meals, but as they’ve grown up, technology is taking a bigger part in their lives,” says Brian Irwin, manager with McDonald’s global marketing group. “In order to remain relevant with them, we wanted the brand experience to extend beyond the restaurant. We own a strong relationship with kids in the real world, and we felt we could do the same in the virtual worlds that they’re living in more and more.”

“The Happy Meal is one of the oldest and most successful loyalty programs out there,” says Scott Cotter, senior director of account services with Creata Promotions, which designed the site and the new virtual world. “As we saw new play patterns emerging with virtual worlds and higher levels of interaction and self-expression, we recognized that it was time for McDonald’s to explore that.”

On that question of self-expression, kids get a voice in how the McDonald’s virtual world grows. In September, they were asked to go online and vote for a new name for the world. (Not surprisingly, they chose “McWorld.”) From now until Oct. 9, they can vote to include one of four new areas within the world. (Dinosaur Island is currently far outpacing Skateboard Park, Winter Zone and Sports Arena.)

Other areas of McWorld have already been populated with properties that will be used in upcoming Happy Meal promotions. For example, “Superopolis,” a superhero-filled city, will come into play during this month’s promotion around the Batman Lego video game.

And to appeal to kids who might like the Happy Meal toy tie-in but don’t want to take part in the virtual world, HappyMeal.com will offer other branded online features. October’s Lego Batman promotion offers downloadable wallpapers, screensavers and instant-messaging icons, all with the Lego Batman characters.

Within McWorld, not all activities involve licensed entities. Kids can customize stheir avatars and equip their tree-house homes, and take part in games such as Putt-Putt and Happy Hockey that are not branded, except for liberal use of the Golden Arches logo. The games feature leaderboards that show top scorers. Favorite games and activities can be saved to a customized “My Happy Meal” profile. Users can win awards for fastest times, best skating moves, most creativity, etc., and put them on display in the Hall of Fame.

But future Happy Meal promotions will all link to McWorld, Anderson says. “Through 2008, every Happy Meal will come with an access code featured on the boxes or bags,” she says. “They’ll also appear on packaging for our Apple Dippers and our white and chocolate milks. Then starting in 2009, every toy will have a code featured on an insert inside the polybag.”

While the access codes can expire once the promotion is over, the games and features they’re linked to in McWorld will not. During the Star Wars promotion, for example, kids were able to interact with Jedi master Yoda himself. “We don’t want kids to get engaged with a game only to be disappointed when the campaign ends,” Irwin says.

At the same time, newness and freshness are key factors in the appeal of virtual worlds. The folks behind McWorld hope that rotating in new Happy Meal tie-ins every month or so, one for girls and one for boys, will keep members engaged.

“It’s our hope these kids will want to come back several times a month precisely for the new promotions,” Irwin says.”

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