Reporter's Notebook
McDonald's looking for ideas at SXSW

McDonald's looking for ideas at SXSW

Jonathan Maze

The Golden Arches wants to become the Silicon Arches.

McDonald’s Corp. is hosting a trio of pitch sessions to startup companies later this month at the South by Southwest Festival (SXSW) in Austin, Tex. The sessions will be aimed at startup companies with innovations in packaging and delivery, messaging content and the restaurant experience.

The big winner will be invited to a brainstorming session with top executives at the company’s Oak Brook, Ill. Headquarters. Finalists will get $1,000 to support their next business trip. McDonald’s gets to be seen with digital innovators at perhaps the year’s hippest event.

It is only the latest sign that the company has turned on the jets in its efforts to transform into a more technologically savvy — and Millennial friendly — business.

The burger giant is coming off one of the worst years in its history. Its domestic system sales fell 1.1 percent in 2014, the first time that has happened in at least three decades. The company has ceded ground to its QSR competitors for the first time in years.

McDonald’s digital efforts have not quite been given as much attention as some of the chain’s other plans to fix its U.S. sales, but that makes them no less important. The company recently named a Google executive, Margo Georgiadis, to its board of directors. And it is boosting its digital team to as many as 250 by the end of this year.

SWSW is a set of music, film and interactive festivals and conferences in Austin. McDonald’s is a big sponsor of the event this year and will have a “McDonald’s Lounge” at the Austin Convention Center. But the company is also looking for ideas.

“Convenience, fun and value have always been at the core of McDonald’s DNA,” McDonald’s Chief Digital Officer Atif Rafiq wrote in a guest post on the SXSW site introducing the sessions. “Today, we are on the move to transform how we bring these pillars to life through the growth of technologies such as mobile, connected devices, digital media and the Internet of Things. The opportunity to modernize our brand in meaningful ways has never been as plentiful due to these fast-moving spaces.”

The sessions will take place at the festival’s “Startup Village” on March 13. The description of those sessions provides an interesting look into McDonald’s thinking on technology and its possibilities.

Maybe the most interesting session is called “Mobilizing the Transportation and Delivery Revolution,” where the company is looking for mobile, transportation and delivery innovation. The session information notes that, “Our existing idea of door-to-door delivery and drive-thru will soon be obsolete.” McDonald’s pitch session materials suggest the possibility of drones delivering food as we’re driving down the highway.

McDonald's is trying to become more technologically friendly. Photo: Getty Images

Another session is about “Content Creation” and is aimed at finding new ways for brands to create content with communities, particularly on the social media front.

A third session is called “Reinventing the Restaurant Experience,” and the company says it is looking for ways to customize the restaurant experience for the customer. “Imagine walking into the restaurant, the crew immediately recognizing who you are, knowing your favorite order and charging your account — without needing to open your wallet,” the company says. It also talks about using “multiple screens and mobile devices to make the restaurant of the future a reality.

McDonald’s is hardly the only consumer brand sponsoring the event. Others include Pepsi, Monster Energy and Miller Lite. And we’re guessing that, while the brand hopes it might find a big idea at the festival, its goal is likely to show to younger consumers that it isn’t quite as out of touch as they think. Given that many people believe the chain is loosing the war for those younger consumers, being seen at SXSW is probably not a bad idea.

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