Create Your Taste is the headline, but McDonald’s use of digital is far reaching.

Interview: Christopher Holder

The rumours have been there since the beginning. As editor of DigitalSignage, since Issue 1 I’d heard rumblings regarding McDonald’s digitising all its menuboards. For signage suppliers, it was the Lassiter’s Reef of digital signage jobs — the fabled McDonald’s account.

Curiously, as the years rolled by, the big switch to digital menuboards never materialised and I wondered why. After all, it seemed an obvious move. A big move, granted, but an obvious one.

2015 has finally seen the switch. And it’s bigger and far more disruptive to the QSR (quick service restaurant) sector than we could possibly have imagined. What the market didn’t see coming was Create Your Taste: a build-your-own-burger offering, based on a self-service kiosk, and table service.

Create Your Taste has been the Trojan horse (or Angus beef cow perhaps) for full digital infiltration into McDonald’s restaurants. With all the attention on the 30 ingredients and the ‘un-McDonald’s-ness’ of the infinite choice and table service, the big burger chain has subtly introduced a whole raft of digital.

DigitalSignage spoke to McDonald’s Head of Digital, Mark Wheeler.




DigitalSignage: How would you describe your job Mark?

Mark Wheeler: As Head of Digital it’s my job to transform the customer experience through the use of technology. To achieve that I partner with our marketing team, IT department, and restaurants solutions group. My focus is on delivering greater levels of convenience — taking convenience to the next level.

The second part of my job is around engagement — leveraging digital to engage customers: whether that be through traditional marketing or social media or content or restaurant content. And that’s got to be fun. We’re a brand that has fun and playfulness at its heart.

To bring convenience and engagement we need connection. McDonald’s is already one of the most connected brands, but we’re ramping that up; taking our connection with customers up another level.

DigitalSignage: What does that mean practically?

Mark Wheeler: Connecting with customers is about being relevant, being contextual, being hyper-local; really having a dialogue with customers through digital. It’s also about understanding our customers better and delivering content that is tailored to them, delivering an experience that’s tailored to them, and as a result an experience they feel in control of. That makes for a better experience and ultimately that will deliver greater sales and greater brand preference over our market competitors.


DigitalSignage: What’s the ideal customer journey look like? What are the touchpoints along the way to that first bite of a burger?

Mark Wheeler: To answer that question I’ll remind you what the old journey was like, a journey with very few visual touchpoints: The customer would walk into the restaurant; there may be a TV screen with some content playing; they then approach the front counter, where you would find a traditional tri-board — a three-panel menuboard showing the food menu and our merchandise menu. They would then order and pay cash. They would then go to a pickup point; grab their meal, sit down and enjoy their burger.

What we’re doing at an accelerated pace is really transforming that experience. We want a customer to walk into the restaurant, where there’s now self-ordering kiosks, so they don’t have to approach the front counter to order their meal. In fact, now they can create their own burger through a self-ordering kiosk with a software solution at its heart. They can then take a ‘puck’ (or table locator), wait for table service and avoid the front counter entirely if they choose. It’s a completely different service model for McDonald’s.

DigitalSignage: But digital extends beyond the kiosk?

Mark Wheeler: Sure. For those using the front counter, we’ve digitised the merchandising boards. There will be five, six, or seven displays, depending on the configuration of the restaurant. There’s animated content, and a more relevant menu because we are able to deliver a content strategy tailored to the day part, and have more day parts.

DigitalSignage: Are we talking about more than switching the board around after the brekky menu curfew hits?

Mark Wheeler: Yes. One of the restrictions we’ve had with the old tri-boards, is being forced into a three-day-part strategy. With digital, we’re able to adopt a seven-day-part strategy and be more relevant at certain day-parts, eg. we might schedule different products in the morning snacking period; different to lunch, dinner, or afternoon snacking.



GuihenJones has been a marketing partner of McDonald’s for more than 25 years. And for 25-plus years it has been designing, developing and distributing its printed material to more than 1000 restaurants across Australia and New Zealand. Suffice it to say, GuihenJones has been on a voyage of discovery as much as the client. To its credit GuihenJones has tooled up and met the challenge. It now has integrated technical and creative teams that provide full content scheduling, streaming and monitoring of McDonald’s digital estates, ensuring the correct messages are seen in the right restaurants at the right times.

GuihenJones’ advice for those moving into digital?: Talk to an expert; don’t try and design your messaging yourself; don’t underestimate the importance of message scheduling and delivery; do set aside a budget, don’t try to say everything just because you can; do keep your message current and relevant; don’t bore your customer, engage; do have fun with it and don’t give up if it doesn’t work instantly.

GuihenJones: (02) 9431 1400 or guihenjones.com.au


DigitalSignage: I’ve noticed you have an additional display in the restaurants for messaging other than the menu?

Mark Wheeler: We have what we call the Community Screen. Our licensees do a lot of work with the local community and this screen allows them to push local messages. It allows the licensee to upload content to that screen: the local footy team news, local charity information… and that can interchange with a national promotion as well. So that’s a new screen and new touchpoint post-purchase for the customer to get some insight into what’s happening at a local restaurant level.

And the other piece we’re working on is a television in-restaurant. At the moment we have TVs, but we’re resetting the content strategy for that. We’re well aware that it’s these other screens in the restaurant that allow for more real-time, more relevant, more contextual, more hyper-local visual touchpoints.


DigitalSignage: How does mobile fit into the strategy?

Mark Wheeler: Ordering via mobile takes it to the next level. You avoid the kiosk, the front counter — just sit down at the table and order. We’re really putting the customer in control of their experience and they can fully customising that experience via their smartphone.

DigitalSignage: How do you walk the line of greater engagement without being obtrusive?

Mark Wheeler: I think that goes back to putting the customer in control — if the customer feels in control then they don’t feel shouted at.

Interestingly, with our new Create Your Taste platform, the customer has to wait longer for that burger because it’s fresh off the grill cooked to order. As a result, there is more down time and dwell time, so we need to be careful and selective about our messaging in that time. In fact, the experience we’re creating isn’t about shouting at the customer at all. We’re removing a lot of our traditional merchandising — posters, decals, flags and bunting — and allowing room for much more of a restaurant experience. Of course, in that downtime people will pull out their phone, which is why we’re installing super fast, free wi-fi.

DigitalSignage: And it’s the free wi-fi that allows you to introduce your mobile strategy?

Mark Wheeler: Right. And the whole content strategy around mobile is about providing additional functions and features, and introducing added benefits to using the mobile ordering platform.

DigitalSignage: Which takes us back to the customer having a greater degree of control over their Macca’s experience.

Mark Wheeler: Exactly. More choices, more control: the customer controls how they want to experience McDonald’s rather than us controlling how they experience McDonald’s.

DigitalSignage: What have you learned about how people interact with the kiosks?

Mark Wheeler: We’re constantly analysing, evolving, adapting and optimising the kiosk interface. One of the key things we have done is hire about 15,000 more staff into the McDonald’s workforce to be in front of the counter, to host and help the customer through the kiosk experience. That first experience with any digital interface is crucial, and some customers need a little more help than others.



Coates Signco is the hardware and CMS hero of the McDonald’s digital deployment. Coates Signco took care of the end-to-end development, manufacture and implementation of the digital elements, such as the kiosks and the digital menuboards. This was a monumental task, where Coates Signco worked with McDonald’s management, understanding the functional and technical requirements, especially with the 3500 game-changing kiosks, which it designed, prototyped and ultimately manufactured. Coates Signco then managed the installation of the hardware over a four-month period.

The screens’ content is managed by the Coates Signco CMS, Switchboard, which has been developed with the retail sector in mind to serve content to any internet-enabled device. Switchboard is a web-based CMS that allows for centralised changes across the whole network as well as the localised content tweaks that appear on the restaurants’ digital menuboards, McCafe screen and Community screen.

Being web-based, you can consider every screen to be much like a micro website which is customised and takes localised data to shape the menu — whether that’s pricing, a weather feed, the demographic profile of the restaurant or even transaction-level data that can be ingested into Switchboard and dynamically change the content… all in HTML.

The digital menuboard screens are all NEC commercial panels. Each restaurant refit is designed to accommodate five 46-inch panels behind the counter, but where space is limited the screen size drops to 40 inches to maintain the format.

Each screen has an Intel NUC mini PC acting as the media player — loaded with Switchboard, downloading content and playing back that content at the ordained time.

The marketing agency, Guihen Jones, has direct access to Switchboard in its offices in Crows Nest, which gives them confidence that the content is appearing correctly. Coates Signco is transparent at this point, allowing marketing and McDonald’s to get on with the task of branding and selling, while providing software support 24/7 and training as required.

Clearly this is a huge account for Coates Signco and COO Henry Mowat, and despite the size of the deployment, it’s really only the beginning: “We’re working on the capability to give McDonald’s a single platform for content management across all applications. That’s the objective — a single CMS for its website, kiosks, digital menuboards, and mobile platforms.”

Coates Signco: (02) 9699 3122 or www.coatessignco.com.au

NEC: 131 632 or www.nec.com.au

Intel: (02) 9937 5800 or www.intel.com


DigitalSignage: People are slowly becoming accustomed to self serve — banks have been doing for decades.

Mark Wheeler: You’re right. The supermarket sector is the other big one. Funnily enough we tried self service about seven years ago, but I think it was too soon for the market. We’re coming in now where other sectors and other categories have driven that type of behaviour and our customers are reacting very positively.

DigitalSignage: What I find interesting is you’ve introduced two huge new concepts at the same time: self service and Create Your Taste. It must have been tempting to think, ‘hey, maybe just self service is a big enough thing for people to get their heads around’ without introducing a whole new customisable burger menu.

Mark Wheeler: I take your point, but Create Your Taste married to the kiosks taps into the personalisation of the experience for customers. Plus, Create Your Taste is a compelling reason for customers to give the kiosks a try. And finally, introducing Create Your Taste from behind the counter would have been a nightmare — can you imagine the situation where the crew member is trying to explain the order? It would have been very challenging to get that right.


DigitalSignage: Any grand plans for drive-thru?

Mark Wheeler: We will look at that over the course of the next six to 12 months. We will look at digitising the menuboards and look at how mobile unlocks drive-thru — being able to order a customised burger from drive-thru is an opportunity the customer will want. And home delivery — the ability to create your own burger and have that delivered is something we need to consider. It takes us to that next level of hyper convenience over and above somebody coming into our restaurants or going through our drive-thru.

But for now, we’ve transformed the restaurant experience and we want customers to come in and enjoy being in the restaurant; having that table service, having that modern experience — we want them to experience McDonald’s that way first then over time we can then give them the experience in different ways.