A Ronald McDonald statue taking a selfie at the McDonald’s Saturday night SXSW party (Alyssa Bereznak/Yahoo Tech).
AUSTIN, Texas — Ronald McDonald was taking a selfie.
On Saturday night I went to a party at the heart of Downtown Austin, thrown to celebrate the South by Southwest festival. The outdoor lounge was filled with a musicians’ stage, cushy blow-up couches, a cache of free swag, and an open bar serving maple-bacon bourbon Old Fashioneds. But when we walked in, all I could see was a statue of Ronald McDonald, dressed in a colorful paisley suit with a smartphone pointed at his face. He was taking a selfie.
Yes, the cocktails we sipped were provided not by a hip startup like Twitter or Snapchat, but by the $96 billion company McDonald’s. 2015 is the global fast-food chain’s first year at Austin’s annual tech, music, and film event. And here, during the conference’s “interactive” phase, Mickey Ds has attempted to establish a youthful digital-savvy presence alongside up-and-comers like Meerkat and FireChat.
The Wi-Fi log-in screen for McDonald’s Saturday night event.
Last year, McDonald’s declared itself an official sponsor of the conference. In a December 2014 Medium post, the company’s chief digital officer, Atif Rafiq, promised to “improve the SXSW experience for everyone,” by hosting hack-a-thons, panels, and setting a “Fry-Fi” food truck loose in the city to distribute free Wi-Fi along with the chain’s world-famous french fries. “We are evolving how McDonald’s works — bringing in design lead thinking, prototyping and more innovative ways of exploring new concepts,” he wrote.
But McDonald’s isn’t just here to prove it can revamp the way you order a burger, it’s here to refresh its image. As a recent piece in the New York Times noted, the company has seen a decline in same-store sales over the past five years. So much so that the company’s CEO was replaced in January. In the chain’s quest to find a new, younger market, the Times notes that “McDonald’s is experiencing an identity crisis.”
Nothing seemed more clear the moment I saw that smartphone-wielding Ronald. Beside his giant red clown shoes was a sign imploring partygoers to take their “best selfie” with the mascot and post them to Instagram. His favorites, it explained, would be reposted on his feed. Just like any middle-aged brand trying to prove it’s still got it, old Ronald is trying to appeal to millennials via ego and Instagram.
With the help of a few drinks, however, the lounge’s attendants took the bait. They posed for photos with one of the four suit-clad Ronald McDonalds scattered throughout the scene — sometimes even whipping out a selfie stick to get the whole group in there. Around them, attendants wearing T-shirts that read “i’m lovin’ it,” in all lowercase letters, offered up pins that depicted McCafe drinks and images of Grimace (Ronald’s large purple sidekick). Next to the stage was a table full of swag — specifically T-shirts and McDonald’s-branded earbuds — that were free for the taking. By the time we’d arrived, there were barely any left.
Our first mission, after taking a selfie with Ronald, was to grab a cocktail. While in line, I turned to two 20-something girls who seemed just as perplexed by the scene as I was. “Did you take a selfie with Ronald?” I asked. “No, that clown is creepy,” one of them said.
Finally, a band began playing onstage. Here, too, was an awkward reminder of how new McDonald’s is to the idea of a fun party. The corporation earned the ire of the Internet when the Brooklyn band Ex Cops revealed in a Facebook post that McDonald’s had asked them to play at the event in exchange for free food. After the news made the rounds online, McDonald’s reneged on its statement and said it’d pay the artists after all. The company learned the hard way that nothing says “uncool” more than a corporation that underpays both its workers and its featured South by Southwest acts.
So, after DJ Slaptop finished with his set, we watched a red-lipped Aussie named Meg Mac take the stage for her first performance in the United States. Two minutes into the set, a crowd had formed around the stage. Chatter lowered, and some of the audience’s more inebriated members started dancing. One man yelled, “She’s so f***ing good!” My friend and I agreed.
Once the set ended, we wandered to the next party, surprised we had actually had fun.
“I’m definitely going to look her up,” my companion said as we wandered to the next party.
“Same,” I replied, pausing to upload a picture of a Ronald McDonald selfie to Instagram. “I still can’t believe that McDonald’s knew about an artist that I didn’t.”
The brand-saturated world of SXSW is not much different from that of a middle-aged man attempting to get his groove back. Throw some cocktails and a couple of free concert tickets at a crowd full of young people, and maybe — just for a night — they’ll think you’re cool.