Food & Beverage

How Collabs Saved Fast Food

You’re a fast-food exec gazing at declining sales comps and a tidal wave of negative press. Your product has been stigmatized as an environmental hazard, destroying the health of a nation. You need a solution that no amount of advertising can deliver. Where do you turn?

Enter collabs.

When companies are facing damaging brand perceptions, they need to get creative with ways to not only shift the conversation, but also to attract new customers, and excite current ones with something fun and unexpected. Fast food brands often do this through collabs with popular celebrities, hot brands, and value-adding partners. These types of brand partnerships generate buzz about exciting collaborations while simultaneously creating a shared audience.

While fast food collabs seem to be everywhere now, we’ll have to jump back to the ‘90s to see how it all started.

Celebrity Collabs

The idea of a celebrity collaboration isn’t really a new concept… it’s just one that was forgotten for a while. Way back in 1991, McDonald’s was looking for a way to stand out from the crowd, and get its customers excited again. This early brand collaboration strategy paired Michael Jordan, arguably the biggest sports star on the planet at the time, with Chicago area McDonald’s locations. After it was reported that Jordan stopped at McDonald’s every morning for breakfast, McDonald’s knew they could use this to make their brand seem “cool,” and not just for families and young kids.

McDonald’s rolled out the McJordan Burger, a quarter pounder with cheese, bacon, and barbecue sauce for what was supposed to be a limited, one-month release at a few Chicago locations. The promotion ended up being so successful that it was expanded to a few other locations, including Michael Jordan’s home state of North Carolina, and ran for nearly two years. Now that’s a slam dunk!

More recently, Canadian coffee chain Tim Horton’s was similarly looking to reinvent their image, attract younger customers, and infuse the brand with some excitement. What better way to do it than with one of Canada’s favorite sons, Justin Bieber? This strategy worked… in a big way. Bieber fans drove Tim Horton’s sales up by more than 10% in Q4 of 2021, through their purchase of “Timbiebs,” a special offering of the classic “Timbits” in three special flavors created by Bieber, and the accompanying collab merchandise.

Fashion Collabs

While fast food has a reputation for being a sea of salty, greasy, sameness, fashion is known for being the exact opposite. Fashion is a way that we can express our individuality, show who we are, and make a statement about what sorts of things matter to us. Plus, fashion is a way of connecting to others with similar interests. It’s like a shortcut to an instant community. How, many fast-food brands wondered, could the fast-food industry build the sort of tribe a popular fashion brand does?

Guess what we’re going to say here. Yep. Collabs.

One of the masters of collabs in the fast-food industry has long been Taco Bell. While Taco Bell already has a pretty loyal following, it can have a vibe of something you get for yourself at the drive-thru late at night… not exactly a community-building activity. To fix this, Taco Bell x Forever 21, a Taco Bell branded clothing line sold exclusively in Forever 21, was born.

This brand partnership works for both companies, because they already have a lot of overlap in their customers. Both brands cater to young people with their affordable prices, accessible products, and young, hip vibes. Releasing a Taco Bell inspired clothing line at Forever 21 ensured that Taco Bell’s target audience would see it, while the iconic Taco Bell branding also drove more customers into Forever 21. This type of collaboration branding is a great way to build community around fast food brands.

Value-Adding Collabs

Sometimes, a partnership with brands can be about adding to the customer experience. This is exactly the case when it comes to Spotify x Starbucks. This unique collab doesn’t offer any limited-edition merch, or special menu items. Instead, it makes the most of the hospitality experience customers experience in Starbucks.

Here’s how it works. All Starbucks employees are given a free Spotify Premium subscription. Staff members are able to create their own Spotify playlists, which can then be accessed by customers through Starbucks Wi-Fi. This adds to the “chic coffeehouse” vibe of Starbucks locations, and makes customers feel like they’re getting something special.

This type of collab accomplishes things that advertising, signage, and traditional marketing can’t. By putting the customer and server on the same side of the experience, it creates a sense of community between staff and patrons. This is the sort of thing that keeps people coming back day after day.

Reputation-Improving Collabs

As somebody somewhere once said, “if you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em.” Burger King took this mantra to heart in 2019 with its “A Day Without Whopper” campaign. For as long as fast food has existed, McDonald’s and Burger King have been the biggest names, and had the biggest rivalry. So, it might be surprising to hear that they teamed up for a McDonald’s x Burger King collab, all in the name of a noble cause.

Every year, McDonald’s locations in Argentina celebrate “McHappy Day,” during which they donate $2 for every Big Mac sold to childhood cancer research. In 2019, Burger King decided to join in. Rather than hosting a competing charity day, they instead declared the same day “A Day Without Whopper.” On this day, over 100 BK locations took the Whopper off their menu, and instead asked their customers to head over to their biggest competitor and order a Big Mac, all in the name of cancer research.

Although this happened thousands of miles away in Argentina, it made international news. This type of collaboration is so powerful because it humanizes brands in a way that traditional marketing and advertising can’t even come close to doing. These two fast food giants, through their collab, were painted in a generous, charitable, and philanthropic light. The temporary truce between them made customers feel that rather than only caring about the bottom line, these brands have a heart, and care about children around the world.

Although brand collaborations may seem like a new idea, they’ve been around for decades, and fast-food has been successfully using them for years. Whether partnering with a celebrity, a clothing brand, a value-adding partner, or even a competitor, there’s something each of these collaborations has in common – they’re able to improve a brand’s image, attract a new audience, and give customers something to be excited about in ways traditional marketing simply can’t.