The top three Quick Service Restaurants (QSRs) have found themselves in a strategic quagmire online. McDonald's and Burger King continue to strive for ways to engage kids online with offerings at varied levels of co-branding, while Wendy's has stayed away entirely, only targeting adults.
Where the approaches differ, the problems remain. Whether it's trying to create a usable site for kids that is full of fun content, gaining valuable metrics within the parameters of the law, or simply having a website that provides value beyond the physical experience, all three of these brands struggle within the boundaries of the web.
Of course, these problems all fade away when the context changes to a branded desktop application (BDA). Without the confines of the web, these chains become simple examples of just how targeted, contextual and powerful an interactive offering can be.
As long as kids like small toys, McDonald's will continue to dominate. If my children are any indication, McToys somehow strike a note that Burger King and Wendy's don’t. The presentation of the meal in the signature Happy Meal box is another key competitive advantage, and the customizable interface ability in BDAs starts to make an interactive offering come alive for kids and parents.
But on the web, Hapymeal.com is confined in the browser like an overstuffed back closet. So loaded with games and activities, yet unusable as an interface, kids are quickly frustrated with the difficulty in navigating the site (especially if they can't read yet). So they play some games and leave, never to return.
By eliminating digital design restraints on the desktop, kids can use an interface they're already intimately familiar with: the Happy Meal box. Children pour over these boxes in a way no Burger King or Wendy's bag gets attention.
Knowing this, McDonald's can and should create a desktop application using 3-D tools to literally put the box on the desktop and allow users to manipulate the interface as they would the actual object. The four sections on the website could easily translate to the four sides of the box. A look inside the McBox reveals the food choices and nutritional information.
Don't forget about the bottom of the box, which contains the secret answer to next month's happy meal themes. On the website (though it has mysteriously vanished of late) is a downloadable PDF of the McDonald's Happy Meal calendar. On the desktop, children could spin the box to reveal the bottom and next month's toy.
While the design possibilities for McDonald's are certainly more usable for this audience than web convention, it's only the start to unleashing the real power under the hood: instantaneous communication and alerts.
With instant alerts, McDonalds could let user know the moment their local restaurant has the new toys in. Or when there's a new game to play. Or when someone has beaten his or her high score on a game. All of a sudden, you've taken an unusable site and made it a must-have on the desktop.
Yes, brand managers. I do know what you'll ask next. Seamless BDA versioning means you can change any aspect of the desktop design at any time with interrupting the user experience. So when Shrek gives way to July's promotion, the assets can be easily swapped-out to drive the new campaign.
Next: Burger King Spider-Man 3
More of a Spider-Man site than a Burger King presence, out of the 18 links on this page, only one connects users with the Kids Club. This link opens a PDF application for a form that needs to be printed, filled out and mailed in. I clicked it twice out of disbelief to make sure they were serious.
What this complete breakdown in the interactive communication cycle exposes is just how hard it is to create branded websites for kids and return valuable metrics without breaking any laws.
McDonald's at least tries with a simple user name/password registration, giving kids the ability to answer poll questions like, "How many Shrek movies have you seen?" But trying to get any valuable metrics from a kid's club website appears almost impossible, with restrictive registration laws (which I'm a fan of), and web metrics only reaching as far as aggregate data.
BDAs allow QSRs (or anyone with kid-dependent sites, for that matter) to work within the law and still get utterly granular metrics.
While children can remain anonymous, their BDA is still unique, and it is trackable from that point outward, including geographics, interaction paths and data as fine as individual mouse movements in real-time. In fact, the insights gained from BDA metrics packages are so precise they quickly lead to more educated decision making for other media buys.
Where it comes to co-branding, the desktop provides a complete canvas without the size or interactivity restrictions of the web. If being able to control Spidey's web-slinging antics anytime on your desktop doesn't get kids to download it, I'm not sure what will.
This brings up the other challenge of reaching out and persuading kids (who in turn get their parents) to come to the site in the first place. With BDAs, the application is the toy kids and their parents will both appreciate.
Over the past few years, the price of USB key chains has fallen drastically. BDAs can easily fit in the memory of a USB key chain and still have plenty of room for kids to take digital homework home, or give parents an added utility in ferrying work files back and forth. They're small and easy to toss into a kid's meal.
The medium of the USB key chain alone is enough to spark interest and gain a significant number of installations. Will they be inexpensive enough to meet Quick Service Restaurants' demands on per-piece cost? It's only a matter of time.
Next: Wendy's Wendys.com
From as far as I could Google, there's no presence for kids on the Wendy's site. Not even bothering with a web presence and using the internet to target adults instead can't be faulted, seeing what No. 1 and No. 2 in the sector have been able to accomplish. But the need for a BDA here is clear with a single, "Invite a friend to Wendy's."
Thinking about the deeper behavior of burger lovers, one asks why any adult would engage in this functionality when using the phone, email or yelling over cubicle walls will do. The answer is that these low-fi techniques beat out a web form because they include all the conversation around when to go, what to order, who will pick it up, and how much it will probably cost.
Branded Desktop Applications are perfect for creating closed networks to achieve tasks just like this. In short, it means a branded lunch organizer.
My brother-in-law manages a department of 50 people. Every day around 11:00 a.m., the lunch discussions begin. By noon, the order is placed. Every day they loose between 30-50 man hours trying to figure out the logistics of lunch.
So I asked the question, "Even if it was initially blocked by your firewall, would you petition IT to install a BDA on every machine in your department that: 1) Picks someone who will pick the food up 2) Allows people to place their order and create a master list on the pickers' desktop app that lists everyone's order (including taxes), and can be easily printed, and 3) launches a timer on everyone else's computer to let them know when that person is leaving to get lunch?"
The answer was immediate, "If it gives my department 1,500 man-hours a year we didn't have before, who would say no?"
These are just a few examples of what QSRs can do when you look a little deeper into the lives of your customers. BDAs give marketers the ability to provide true utility to the daily lives of their customer base in ways the web simply can't compete with.
The design equation also changes to deliver the physical experience to brands that live and die on physical experiences, from the shape of the box to the taste of the burger (taste-o-vision has not yet been realized in the BDA space).
Most important to brand managers and agencies alike are the seamless versioning and metrics BDAs deliver so well. Brands can see right down to individual mouse clicks for unique users without asking for any personal information. And when the Happy Meal changes from Shrek to Surf's Up, it does so without any interruption to the user experience.
So the question isn't when QSRs will abandon the browser in favor of a more meaningful, highly measurable BDA, but how will they get there?