Marketing Fail? Cardi B’s Date-Night McDonald’s Meal Offends Some Franchisees

By Leslie Patton

Some McDonald’s Corp. franchisees are criticizing the fast-food chain for featuring rapper Cardi B in its advertising. 

Cardi B speaks on stage during the American Music Awards in 2021. Photographer: Kevin Winter/Getty Images

The Grammy-winning performer starred in a Super Bowl commercial earlier this month that featured a meal for couples. These store owners say tying a restaurant chain that caters to families to an entertainer whose songs contain profanities and sexual content will hurt the brand.

These franchisees also say the partnership runs afoul of the chain’s “Golden Arches Code” of marketing guidelines for store owners and employees.

“Partnerships with celebrities and influencers that have potential risk to damage our brand based on statements they have made or their positions on certain issues” aren’t permitted, according to a 2021 copy of the internal code that was reviewed by Bloomberg News. Also forbidden are “music partnerships associated with content that includes offensive language in the lyrics.”

The Golden Arches Code, a global set of marketing, advertising, legal and trademark policies, says that all McDonald’s employees, franchisees, agencies and suppliers are responsible to ensure the code’s full compliance. It says that violations put the brand at risk, and that anything that’s not in compliance with the policies laid out in the document must be removed from use. In the US, franchisees own about 95% of McDonald’s stores.

“It’s kind of a culture-shock thing when you consider the McDonald’s brand over the years,” said Dick Adams, a former McDonald’s restaurant owner and consultant to franchisees. “Especially if you’re a franchisee and you’re 50 or 60 years old and you don’t have any kids and haven’t been exposed to any types of these lyrics.”

The Cardi B promotion includes a so-called date-night meal bundle for two. A commercial showing the entertainer and her significant other, rapper Offset, reciting each other’s favorite McDonald’s orders aired during the NFL championship on Feb. 12. The meal includes two sandwiches — a cheeseburger and a Quarter Pounder with cheese — fries, two drinks and an apple pie. 

“I have talked to many franchisees who are concerned about it, but it’s good for sales and corporate endorses it,” Adams said. He acknowledged that while there is some grumbling and complaining, “I don’t think there’s a lot of pushback.”

McDonald’s said it’s hearing support from owners and their workers, and that its marketing collaborations are bringing in a new generation of diners and driving sales. The company said that it’s always thoughtful and careful about what’s posted on its channels, and careful to avoid language that might offend.

“We’re focused on putting McDonald’s at the center of culture,” Tariq Hassan, chief marketing and customer experience officer for the US market, said in a statement. “Cardi and Offset are an iconic couple who have their own date-night tradition at McDonald’s that goes back years. We’re proud to share a little piece of that.”

The Chicago-based company has been advertising so-called famous orders of celebrities such as singer Mariah Carey and K-pop group BTS — part of an effort to invest in “new, culturally relevant approaches” to marketing. Hassan said that artist collaborations have “fueled significant business momentum, both for the company and our restaurant owner/operators.”

McDonald’s shares are little changed this year, compared with a 3.4% gain for the S&P 500 Index.

While updating its image and attracting more diverse and youthful customers is important to McDonald’s success, it’s also a careful balance, said Mark Kalinowski, president of Kalinowski Equity Research, which publishes McDonald’s franchisee survey results quarterly.

McDonald’s “has for decades been a family-friendly brand, so it’s a challenge to manage that,” he said in an interview. “You want to remain family-friendly and at the same time you want to appeal to younger generations, which don’t necessarily line up.”

Kalinowski said he heard about some McDonald’s owners being upset about selling the Travis Scott celebrity meal in 2020. The company credited the partnership with the Black rapper and hip-hop star for boosting business — McDonald’s said that Quarter Pounder sales doubled during the first week of the promotion. Yet, some franchisees weren’t happy about the tie-up due to Scott’s song lyrics and vulgarities, which they thought didn’t sync with the brand, Kalinowski said.

“We don’t live in a society where everybody’s liking all the same things,” Kalinowski said. “It’s really hard to please everybody.”

Representatives for Cardi B, Offset and Scott didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment. 

McDonald’s is trying to diversify the ranks of its restaurant owners across the US, where it has about 13,500 locations. In 2021, the chain promised to train and recruit more minority and women franchisees with a $250 million loan program to help finance loans for underrepresented groups. But the plan has faced backlash from a group of Black McDonald’s owners, who have said the chain needs to do more to help reduce the inequities they face as current franchisees.

(Updates with additional company comments in 11th paragraph, adds shares in 12th paragraph.)

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