An ingenious creative use of unused space saw the brand support teachers and students during an extensive covid-19 lockdowns, McDonald’s Margot Torres and Publicis Groupe’s Raoul Panes tell LBB’s Laura Swinton
After one of the longest lockdowns in the world, the Philippines is finally in a good place with covid-19. They’re on the lowest alert level so far, and despite the global gas prices surge consumer confidence is high.
Two years ago, though, the picture facing Margot Torres, managing director for McDonald's Philippines, and Raoul Panes, chief creative officer of Publicis Groupe Philippines, was looking very different. Like many countries, the Philippines locked down to prevent the spread of this unknown virus. For McDonald’s, that meant shutting down 62% of their 670 stores. Workers were unable to get to the stores because public transport was paused and for student employees living with older relatives, they didn’t want to risk bringing the virus home. Programmes like the iconic Kiddie Crew were put on pause and, of course, McDonald’s birthday parties were also immediately cancelled, leaving party rooms vacant.
In those early days, the team at Leo Burnett and McDonald’s leapt to action stations. The immediate focus was around keeping customers and employees safe, and in particular looking at safe delivery and reassuring consumers. But, soon, the conversation between the brand and the agency turned to what McDonald’s bigger role would be.
“McDonald’s is always open to conversations about this thing. So, education was a thing that was cropping up because there were a lot of reports about teachers doing online classes being unable to get proper or stable signals. And in the course of preparing various campaigns, we had two groups within the agency who were thinking around the same lines, about utilising party spaces,” says Raoul. And so the idea clicked into place - why not tackle teachers’ connectivity issues by making use of the closed up party spaces in McDonald’s restaurants?
And so the team pitched it to the McDonald’s marketing team and to Margot - and soon the operations team was brought in to help set up a pilot and to help reach branches around the country.
For Margot, the organic way that the idea emerged was a sign of the healthy relationship between McDonald’s marketing team and Leo Burnett - indeed it’s not the first time that a proactive idea has blossomed into a major, super effective campaign or project (Margot points to an ingenious campaign that saw McDonald’s place a physical Google delivery pin in cemeteries for All Saints Day, a time when Filipinos flock to graveyards to picnic and reunite with their dead relatives).
It’s also, Margot points out, an example of how creative thinking can really be the key to meaningful solutions. “In the lockdown, everyone wanted to help because that’s the nature of McDonald’s. Our roots lie in the community. Our DNA includes giving back and wanting to help the community where we operate, so the team came up with a solution using creativity. ‘Here is unused space, and here is a problem, and we can address it,’” says Margot. “So it’s not really a one off. When it comes to McDonald’s Classroom, that’s what’s done regularly between the teams - using creativity to come up with a solution.”
What’s also not a one-off is McDonald’s focus on education within the Philippines specifically. For example, the Ronald McDonald House Charity has a mission to improve the lives of Filipino children and its programmes include a reading programme with the Department of Education (which has seen 300,000 books distributed, 27,000 educators trained and has benefited over 12 million children) and a network of 32 learning centres.
That pre-existing role in the country’s education meant that not only did McDonald’s Classroom fit with the brand's heritage, but meant the teams had access to a huge existing network of educators to consult with.
“The relationships exist, right? In fact, they were a major source of information for the local store marketing team because they’re very close to the teachers and principles,” says Margot. “They knew about the challenges teachers faced having a very small space in their home and yet having to teach their students their lessons for the day. They knew that one challenge was very unstable internet connections. We don’t exactly have the best internet connection in the Philippines, yet it was even more challenging for teachers. Here in the Philippines, we’re mobile first when it comes to the experience of the internet. So that’s all really challenging for the teachers again - imagine trying to work amid all the distractions. Trying to keep your students engaged with the lessons knowing the students also have faulty internet connections and distractions in their own homes.”
McDonald’s Classroom’s first phase was a pilot that focused on the teachers - allowing them to use the disused party spaces and facilities to broadcast lessons to students. But despite an elegant solution to a serious problem, Margot confides that the team was nervous about the impact and response the project would have.
“There was still some doubt on whether it was going to work, and that’s why [there was] a pilot phase in the first year,” says Margot. “But to our surprise, there was very positive sentiment nationwide. I think people appreciate that everyone was just too busy dealing with the virus and yet there was a corollary problem because of covid, which was the quality of learning that was happening for children. That was a concern for parents and for educators. It was like putting two years’ of studies on hold. So, we were trying to improve the experience and we wondered if it was enough. That’s why we had doubts. All we were doing was providing the space and an internet connection - and yet the appreciation was evident. The sentiment was about 100% on the brand.”
And so they quickly expanded to 249 locations - not all McDonald’s branches had a party area - and in total over 86,000 hours’ of time was booked out in the spaces. In the second phase of the project, when restrictions had lessened but schools had not opened up, students were also able to book time at the physical McDonald’s classrooms. In order to help with the challenge of scaling up, McDonald’s collaborated with other corporations who wanted to help, for example with the internet connections or putting together care kits.
Of course, while the project tackled a serious issue that didn’t mean that there wasn’t any space for fun. Throughout the course of McDonald’s Classroom, the agency and brand were able to convince local celebrities and influencers to pop up for surprise lessons for free - and the Leo Burnett team also came up with plenty of playful activations to keep students and teachers engaged.
“The first pilot programme was really about the basics of space and Wi Fi signal. Going into the second year, we wanted to bring back happiness into learning, McDonald’s being a feel-good brand,” explains Raoul. “So that’s why we were very deliberate about the kinds of things that would make the students and teachers happy. Food, of course, would make everyone happy so they got free snacks when they got in and they got care kits. We provided free Zoom backgrounds, especially designed for the young crowd. We had the celebrities, who would pop in and greet them as a surprise. And some teachers took the initiative too with the characters giving appearances in the middle of the class.”
From an impact point of view, the reach of this project was unprecedented. And while the core goal was to help the students and teachers of the Philippines during a time of global crisis, it did have a positive impact on brand metrics. It lifted trust scores and within the Asia Pacific region, the Philippines now commands the highest trust scores for the brand. According to Kantar’s Brand Imagery Scores, it increased 3.37 ppts as ‘a company I trust’ and 5.49 ppts as ‘an ethical and responsible company’.
And to give a particularly relatable example of the positive reception, the project even managed to outperform McDonald’s BTS Meal on Facebook in terms of shares. It was the most shared McDonald’s content on Facebook in the Philippines for 2021. And, overall, social media shares increased 3449%.
The results of the project have been gratifying and it’s clear talking to Raoul and Margot that it’s been personally satisfying to be able to have such an at-scale positive influence on people’s lives during such a difficult time. For Margot, this isn’t the first time that she and McDonald’s have entered the education space and taken on such big roles in the local community but it has opened her eyes to just how great an impact the private sector can have.
Asked what she would tell the rest of the private sector, Margot has this to say. “I really think we live in our own bubble. We’re so busy and preoccupied with our own businesses and our own industries. And because of covid and the United Private sector Firm, where we set all our differences aside, you realise that a private corporation and someone with the scale of McDonald’s can really make an impact, uplift the state of the country, help those in need. We are so used to doing brand campaigns, promotional campaigns - of course, we need to sell - but we can always set aside energy, brainpower and funds and really use creativity for a purpose.”
And for the wider advertising community, Raoul also thinks that this project is particularly instructive. “This is an egocentric industry, I would say. People are chasing awards and all that, and that’s all well and good, but the greater fulfilment is in doing something that helps society in one way or another and I’m very proud of this work.”
Going forward, McDonald’s Classroom is changing shape once more. Party areas have opened back up and schools have reopened in recent months, meaning that the spaces aren’t available at peak party days and times and teachers and students are getting ready to return to their own classrooms. But the commitment to education remains stronger than ever. The big mission for the Read to Learn programme is around digitalisation and accessibility, so that children aren’t limited by the number of hard copies of books they have access to. Ronald McDonald House Charity is also reinvigorating its own advocacy for education. And universities have begun to reach out to McDonald’s about partnering to use some space in their mall branches for study groups.
“It’s very fulfilling to see that you’re able to make a difference,” says Margot.