For quick-service restaurants, the past six months have represented somewhat of a golden age of celebrity tie-ins, as more and more athletes, musicians, influencers, and gamers have entered into promotional partnerships with fast food restaurants. Each initiative is unique, with some skewing toward the endorsement end of the spectrum, some being meal-centric, and others highlighting themed merchandise:
• McDonald’s worked with rapper Travis Scott on a meal-and-merchandise deal for which Scott received at least $20 million, according to Forbes. The effort included a signature combo meal that was popular enough to create shortages of Quarter Pounder ingredients in some locations, as well as co-branded shirts, shorts, and a body pillow shaped like a Chicken McNugget, each featuring the Golden Arches and the logo of Scott’s Cactus Jack label. McDonald’s followed the Scott venture with another involving reggaeton singer J Balvin that highlighted a special meal (based on his favorite order) and was meant to include a merchandise collection encompassing a McFlurry bucket hat, a temporary tattoo of a receipt for the J Balvin meal, and Big Mac slippers. The food offering was introduced in October, but the merchandise part of the promotion was canceled in mid-January, before it launched, due to “production challenges.”
• Wendy’s offered limited-edition, delivery-only meal deals named for five Twitch streamers. They included TFUE, a former Fortnight specialist who now plays Call of Duty: Warzone; FLIGHT, who is known for his reaction videos; itsHafu, who plays Among Us; xChocoBars, known for his Fortnite expertise; and Myth, a Valorant player. The signature meals include a variety of menu items, depending on the individual gamer’s tastes, from spicy chicken nuggets to the Baconator burger. Each customer ordering a meal receives a code for a chance to win Uber Eats gift cards or Wendy’s Never Stop Gaming merchandise such as hoodies, slides, gamer bags, and water bottles, as well as grand prizes including a gamer chair or console.
• Dunkin’ collaborated with TikTok dancer and star Charli D’Amelio on The Charli, a signature Cold Brew coffee with three pumps of caramel, in September. The drink was based on D’Amelio’s favorite order, which she had made known on TikTok before the deal. The Charli was followed this month by a new drink, The Charli Cold Foam—the same as the first but with Sweet Cold Foam and cinnamon sugar on top—to help promote the addition of Cold Foam to the chain’s Cold Brew line. A number of other promotional elements involving D’Amelio have accompanied both efforts.
• Panda Express teamed with DIY influencer and creator of the Oh Joy! home furnishings brand, Joy Cho, for Lunar New Year kits available for sale through the Panda Express Swag Shop. The celebration kits included child- and adult-sized Oh Joy! aprons, eight red envelope cards, a recipe book, a calendar of 15 days’ worth of ideas for activities to help families celebrate, Panda Cub Club activity sheets, exclusive Panda Express food offers, and Panda Express items such as a backpack keychain, chopsticks, and fortune cookies.
• Subway paired with former NFL star Marshawn Lynch to promote a new range of protein bowls to help consumers make healthier food choices in 2021. In the “Go Pro” campaign, Lynch appeared in commercials and social media and was involved in the Subway Pro Teen Awards, a contest directed at teens who missed their football season due to the pandemic. Several new protein bowls were highlighted as part of the promotion, as was the fact that consumers can now transform their favorite Footlong sandwich into a protein bowl.
• Arby’s developed a meal inspired by its relationship with TikToker John Casterline, which developed opportunistically after he created a funny post about the chain. The chain responded to the post, leading to a humorous back-and-forth and ultimately a viral meme. Arby’s ended up developing a limited-edition $5 Missing Menu Meal that tied into the theme of the ongoing conversation.
Celebrity partnerships with QSR chains have not been unheard of in the past. Hot dog purveyor Dog Haus has had a chef collaboration series for four years, where celebrity chefs create signature limited-edition menu items each quarter. In December 2020 it announced its latest list of partners, which extends into the realm of influencers for the first time with the addition of TV and YouTube personality Sam Zien (“Sam the Cooking Guy”). Other 2021 partners include Bert S. Agor, Jr., the national corporate executive chef for King’s Hawaiian; Chris Oh, a TV personality and chef with four restaurants across the U.S.; and Isaac Toups, a restaurateur and Top Chef finalist. The tie-ins are also expanding beyond the Dog Haus to other concepts owned by parent Absolute Brands.
Going back further, Michael Jordan had a signature meal at McDonald’s almost 30 years ago, in 1992, which represented the last such partnership McDonald’s did with a celebrity until the Scott initiative. Meanwhile, celebrities have long had a presence in advertising and appearances for fast-food chains, although not often in conjunction with a signature meal or specific menu item.
This is the first time in memory that so many celebrity tie-ins, especially involving merchandise or signature meals, have been implemented in such quick succession in this industry. QSR marketers are finding that such partnerships are a good way to reach young (often Gen Z) consumers and to amplify their chains’ marketing messages and brand awareness, thanks to plenty of sharing on TikTok and other social media platforms.