Football and fries: Why McDonald's sponsors sports

By Bill Wilson
Business reporter, BBC News

image captionMcDonald's has sponsored the World Cup since 1994

McDonald's is a prominent sponsor of high-profile sports events, so it seems reasonable to assume it is doing so to make sports fans remember the brand.

Not so, according to the head of the global fast food giant's UK and Northern Europe division.

"One thing we are not seeking is brand awareness," says Steve Easterbrook, McDonald's chief for Northern Europe, and the man widely credited with revitalising the firm's menus and restaurants.

Nor is the US-based giant looking to increase revenues as a result of its backing of the Olympics, which dates back to 1976, or from its World Cup sponsorship, which dates back to 1994.

"We don't sell much as a result of [sport] sponsorship," says the 43-year-old, who will soon be moving to Chicago to take up a new promotion as global chief brand officer.

"The World Cup actually cost us sales," he says, referring to the period when the matches were actually played rather than the long-term effect its advertising might have on sales.

"During the World Cup our restaurants actually had 5% to 6% less sales when games were taking place and people would head home to watch it on television."

'Sweet spot'

Rather than brand building, its involvement with sports, including its role as "community partner" of the Football Association since 2002, is about connecting with franchise owners and staff, Mr Easterbrook says.

McDonald's is also eager to be involved in sport at a community level, whether it is backing football coaching or finding Olympic volunteers, he insists.

image captionMcDonald's sponsors sports to bolster morale within the company

"For us, it is more a way of connecting back with our franchisees, who run most of our restaurants, and showing them the influence we have," he says during a Sport Industry Group gathering.

"It also generates enthusiasm within the business. Most of our staff love football and most of our customers love football, so there is a very 'sweet spot' for us there, it is a glue that holds us all together."

As part of its FA deal, McDonald's sponsors the annual football season curtain raiser, the Community Shield, and it has signed up big names in British football, including legends Sir Geoff Hurst, Kenny Dalglish, Pat Jennings, and Ian Rush.

'Broader participation'

In the UK McDonald's employs 85,000 people and serves 2.5 million customers a day.

Some of those may be youngsters who have taken part in McDonald's football coaching programme, operating in the UK since 2002. The scheme has turned out close to 20,000 new football coaches during the last eight years.

By the end of this year, the programme hopes to have coached a million youngsters.

"It is all about evolving broader participation for boys and girls around the country," says Mr Easterbrook.

"If a new David Beckham was to come out of that, it would be great, but that is not what we are in it for."

Health arguments

A cynic might say that McDonald's is involved in the youth football programmes as a way of reaching a new, young, audience, and the firm has faced allegations that it is partly responsible for the growth of childhood obesity.

image caption'We can help young people to burn the calories off', Mr Easterbrook says

In May, The World Cancer Research Fund criticised football governing body Fifa for continuing its partnership with McDonald's during the World Cup.

It said that by remaining a partner with McDonald's, Fifa had scored an "own goal" by "giving this opportunity to companies that are known for unhealthy products".

Mr Easterbrook is dismissive of such arguments.

"I do not think sponsoring sport would have any impact [on obesity]. For us it is about taking sport back into the local community," he says.

"People come into McDonald's two to three times a month - to extrapolate that to the cause of obesity is a real stretch."

And Mr Easterbrook, himself a former keen cricketer who now takes part in sprint triathlons, insists: "We can help young people to burn the calories off."

He also points out that, with regard to the World Cup, McDonald's used its football coaching expertise during this summer's event to help the South African Football Association set up its own coaching programmes.

Olympic meals

The firm's website says that, despite not being a sponsor until 1976, McDonald's "first became involved with the Olympics in 1968 by airlifting hamburgers to athletes competing in Grenoble, France".

As "official restaurant" of the Vancouver Winter Olympics at the start of this year, it ran a slick media campaign, signing up current and former Olympic medal winners, as well as whisking its sponsored athletes into restaurants for photo opportunities of them eating chicken nuggets.

Not bad publicity from an event where there is no trackside branding or shirt logos of any commercial type.

"I am not too hung up about that," says Mr Easterbrook.

"It is not an awareness issue, people expect us to be a sponsor anyway, we could probably come out of sponsoring and people would still think we were associated with the event."

However, McDonald's will still be the only branded food out outlet of any type within the Olympic Park, Media Village or Athletes Village at London 2012.

And the firm estimates it will deliver "maybe one in five" of all meals in these areas, as part of what games organisers Locog has called "the largest peacetime catering operation".

Volunteer programme

However, Mr Easterbrook is much more excited about "our working with volunteers around 2012".

The firm, as noted already an International Olympic Committee worldwide commercial partner, has signed a £3m deal to be "presenting partner" of the volunteering programme around the London games.

McDonald's will use its 1,200 restaurants in the UK to raise awareness of the volunteer programme.

"We thought that was a tremendous fit for us, to help deliver a great games," he says.

Meanwhile, as a means of using its Olympic sponsorship to incentivise its staff, McDonald's will be holding in-house contests to find the 1,200 staff from around the globe to work at the Olympics and Paralympics in 2012.

"We will be looking for the 'best of the best' from around the world," says Mr Easterbrook, who is also currently responsible for operations in the Republic of Ireland, Sweden, Finland, Denmark, and Norway.

"We will set up programmes within our teams across countries, to find out champion crews. You can't underestimate the enthusiasm that will create among our workforce."

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