Roger Kisby/Getty Images
By Brad Tuttle
March 4, 2015

How’s this for an odd, arguably desperate pairing? McDonald’s, which just celebrated its 60th anniversary, and which has struggled mightily to gain favor with trendy millennial consumers, is serving as a “Super Sponsor” at this year’s South by Southwest (SXSW), the annual music, movies, and ideas festival in Austin that’s a magnet for everything young, hip, and forward-thinking.

Not only will the McDonald’s logo be splashed throughout Austin during the mid-March festival, the fast food giant will be handing out food free of charge to attendees and will welcome startups to pitch ideas that could change how the company does business. “We want to be in the flow of ideas, offering our scale to interesting partners, with the intent to make the lives of millions of people who use McDonald’s a bit simpler and even more enjoyable,” McDonald’s explains of its decision to be a part of SXSW.

There will be three separate days for pitch sessions, each focused on a different topic, such as “Reinventing the Restaurant Experience” and “Mobilizing the Transportation and Delivery Revolution.” For the latter, startups are supposed to take the fact that “our existing idea of door-to-door delivery and drive-thru will soon be obsolete” into consideration when pitching innovations. Those with the best pitches could get a chance to win a trip to McDonald’s Illinois headquarters to explain their concepts to company leaders, and potentially become partners.

Apparently, McDonald’s really wants to hear about so-called “moon shots,” i.e. big ideas that stretch the imagination and may at first seem impossible, but which could prove ground-breaking and transformative if they ultimately come to fruition. Like so:

This kind of thinking is quite a step up for a company whose most recent “Big Idea” was bringing back Chicken Selects to the menu.

Gathering solid business ideas is probably not the primary reason McDonald’s is invading SXSW, however. More likely, the company is hoping to make inroads with influential hipsters and millennials, the generation that shows far greater preference for Starbucks and fast casual restaurants like Panera and Chipotle than it does for McDonald’s and other fast food players.

Yet millennials are famously difficult to win over with advertising, and the McDonald’s brand is often polarizing, attracting haters and critics no matter what move it makes. So the company’s supersized presence at the youth-dominated festival seems puzzling to some.

“The usual SXSW crowd is not the [McDonald’s] crowd. [Attendees are] usually edgier, healthier, more techy, definitely more millennial,” Wendy Liebmann, CEO of the WSL Strategic Retail consultant firm, told MarketWatch. “McDonald’s may see this as an opportunity to show it’s become hipper, trendier and [be] using SXSW as a platform to be seen differently.”

In which case, look out Burning Man festival goers. McDonald’s may be coming after you next.

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