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II McDonalds_Grimace_Birthday_Meal___Shake_Hero_Image.jpg Photo courtesy of McDonald's
McDonald's earned the top spot on this year's list because it acknowledged and leveraged consumer-generated content around a viral Grimace trend on TikTok.

McDonald’s won over Gen Z by bringing back Grimace

Three restaurant chains are on this year’s ‘Gen Z’s Most Magnetic Brands’ list, including McDonald’s, Starbucks, and Chipotle.

What’s it take to win over the wildly influential Gen Z consumer? Apparently a big, purple mascot who has been around for 52 years.

That is, at least, according to a new report from research and consulting firm dcdx titled “Gen Z’s Top 25 Most Magnetic Brands.” Topping that list of 25 is McDonald’s, with a proprietary “GenZ Score” of 99.3. The 0-100 score is derived from a brand’s ability to attract popular and consistent user-generated content, which the firm calls “the currency of modern brands.”

That said, McDonald’s jumped six spots from last year, earning favor with Gen Z by “building a legacy over the past few years on collaborations,” as the report notes. Those collaborations began with the Travis Scott Meal in 2020 and were followed by a consistent cadence of meals featuring celebrities from BTS to Saweetie. Earlier this year, the brand expanded its collaboration to include the Cactus Plant Flea Market brand, which led to a 30% increase in visits during its first week.

And there was also Grimace, brought back into the modern ethos with a limited-edition purple shake to celebrate the character’s birthday in June. The campaign became much bigger than a birthday celebration, however.

“McDonald’s earned its No. 1 spot thanks to Grimace, the purple monster that took the national spotlight after Gen Z’ers began giving it a life of its own on TikTok, turning the purple shake into a haunting trend that blew up the internet, garnering 1.4 (billion) views in just two weeks,” the report continued.

The social media tailwind helped drive double-digit traffic increases at the chain, as well as Grimace Shake shortages in some markets. dcdx adds that new products never guarantee new conversations, which is why the Grimace campaign was so remarkable. Notably, McDonald’s embraced the consumer-led virality with a post featuring Grimace and the caption, “meee pretending I don’t see the grimace shake trendd.” That subtle nod was enough to create the magnetism this report seeks.

“When brands show up for their communities, their communities show up for the brand,” dcdx wrote. “Grimace is the most iconically magnetic moment of the year – and it ironically had nothing to do with what McDonald’s did in that moment.”

Indeed, several other brands have conjured up their own celebrity tie-ins, but none with the consistent traffic and sales success of McDonald’s. Notably, McDonald’s marketing approach isn’t just resonating with Gen Z, but also their successors, Gen Alpha. Another report released earlier this year from Morning Consult found that Gen Alpha consumers – those born from 2010 to 2024 – identify McDonald’s as their favorite restaurant, with 37% of the vote. That was well above other brands on the list, including Domino’s Pizza Hut and Papa Johns, each with 7%. Perhaps it’s no surprise, then, that McDonald’s was listed in Rolling Stone Magazine’s top 20 “marketing rockstars” of 2023.

Starbucks and Chipotle also magnetize Gen Z

McDonald’s wasn’t the only restaurant brand on the dcdx list. Starbucks jumped three spots this year to finish No. 7, while Chipotle jumped seven spots to finish No. 22.

The firm notes that Starbucks continues to attract Gen Z with its ability to provide consistent experiences. The brand’s ubiquity also provides comfort, according to the report. And, of course, Starbucks’ drinks are famously visual, which bodes well for a generation raised alongside social media.

“Gen Z takes to socials to show off their new favorite drink, provides hacks on how to optimize your order, and capture the wholesome interaction they had with their barista,” according to the report. “A Starbucks drink order can be compared to a fingerprint. It’s a way to step into someone else’s shoes, in some ways a portrayal of their identity.”

Notably, dcdx acknowledges Starbucks’ labor tensions, including a growing unionizing effort among its employees. The firm writes that the animosity highlights “the continued importance and demand for Starbucks to not only address these challenges but lead the industry forward with healthy and respectful practices with their employees.” Perhaps in light of this, it was reported by Bloomberg earlier this week that Starbucks will make it easier for employees to pause mobile orders when there are higher-than-expected volumes or shorter-than-expected staffing levels.

The third and final restaurant chain in the top 25 is Chipotle, which finds favor among Gen Z consumers for its “relatability,” according to dcdx, citing online discussions around different experiences with the brand. Chipotle was also credited for its “mukbang” video success this year. For the uninitiated, mukbang is a livestreamed video where viewers watch the host eat. Chipotle leveraged this trend by partnering with TikTok creators Keith Lee and Alexis Frost to launch new fajita quesadillas. Chipotle has long been digital forward, injecting itself as one of the first brands on new platforms like BeReal, the metaverse and Threads. And, it continues to evolve its popular rewards program with exclusive programs like “Freepotle” and partnerships with brands like Street Fighter 6.

While not in the top 25, it’s worth noting that several other brands fell into the “magnetic” category this year, including KFC, Taco Bell, Wingstop, Burger King, Subway, Wendy’s, Dunkin’, Chick-fil-A, Popeyes, In-N-Out, and Waffle House.

The second category on the “magnetism matrix,” called “relevant,” includes Domino’s, Olive Garden, Raising Cane’s, Texas Roadhouse, Little Caesars, Chili’s, Jack in the Box, Cracker Barrel, Five Guys, Pizza Hut, Panera Bread, Cheesecake Factory, MrBeast Burger, and Applebee’s.

In the third category, “functional,” lies Arby’s, IHOP, Sonic, Red Lobster, Buffalo Wild Wings, Jimmy Johns, Whataburger, Red Robin, Culver’s, Denny’s, Zaxby’s, Papa Johns, Panda Express, Bojangles, Jersey Mike’s, and TGI Friday’s. And, the fourth category, “weak,” includes Outback Steakhouse, Qdoba, LongHorn Steakhouse, First Watch, Steak ‘n Shake, and Hardee’s.

Contact Alicia Kelso at [email protected]

TAGS: Marketing
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