It's Time for McDonald's To Retire Ronald

Last Updated May 19, 2011 7:07 AM EDT

A widely-publicized letter calling on McDonald's (MCD) to stop using Ronald McDonald in its marketing will likely fall on deaf ears when the company holds its annual shareholders meeting today. But there are two big reasons McDonald's should heed the anti-Ronald advice of the 550 doctors and other health professionals who signed their names to the letter.

The first is perhaps the most obvious. Ronald, once a potent symbol of McDonald's brand ubiquity and vitality, is now little more than an anachronistic liability. He's a holdover from the era of plastic tables, primary colors and florescent lights -- a goofy-looking clown from the 70s. Check out these photos of newly redesigned McDonald's locations in Florida -- featuring earth tones, pendant lights, lounge chairs and modern bar stools -- and ask yourself whether Ronald fits in. Maybe he'll blend if he brings a laptop and sits on one of these red pleather stools.

There's a reason Starbucks (SBUX), which is partly the model for McDonald's redesign, doesn't have a silly mascot -- they're outdated. That and Starbucks doesn't market directly to kids, which gets us to the second reason McDonald's would be better off without "a grown man in face paint and a wig" representing the brand.

How Ronald undermines parents
The presence of Ronald is only going to hurt McDonald's in its ongoing defense of the toy giveaways in its Happy Meals because it undercuts one of the company's basic arguments -- that the food kids eat comes down to parental choice. Ronald McDonald is clearly designed to appeal to kids. As my colleague Jim Edwards pointed out last month, a survey by E-Poll Market Research shows that Ronald remains popular with children, especially very young ones. Some 60% of kids aged 2 through 5 and 41% of 6 to 12 year old's say they like Ronald McDonald.

If it's all about parental responsibility, why have a clown with red shoes running around?

After sidelining Ronald, McDonald's put him back to work in TV commercials, a move that's oddly defiant given all the heat the chain is facing over marketing to kids. A law passed last year in San Francisco that set strict nutrition standards for toys in restaurant meals is likely to spread to other areas of the country (already a similar rule is under consideration in New York City) and McDonald's is facing a lawsuit trying to ban the chain from showing toys in Happy Meal ads.

Keeping Ronald to restricted to the safe confines of the Ronald McDonald House Charities isn't an easy decision. He's been the face of McDonald's for decades, and losing the clown might seem like capitulation. But when orders of nuns start to question your role in in the childhood obesity problem, it's time to let go.

Image from Flickr user Robert-P. Pelikan
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  • Melanie Warner

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