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McDonald’s is going to play SXSW this year

For McDonald’s, hitting on a fresh idea that will bring people back to the Golden Arches is no small task. Don Thompson, 25-year McDonald’s veteran, couldn’t do it. He stepped down as CEO on March 1. Steve Easterbrook, his replacement, plans to “allow technology to do the heavy lifting“ when it comes to making customers happier. It’s the opposite of a “back to basics” approach; Easterbrook wants innovation.

Maybe he’ll find it this month at South by Southwest (SXSW), the annual music-festival-turned-creative-confab in Austin, Texas.

McDonald’s will be a prominent sponsor, and it hopes to come away with more than just whatever goodwill it can generate among conference goers who take advantage of the McCafé coffee, “music-based experiences,” and “salon-based programming” at the “McDonald’s Lounge” on site.

It wants ideas.

McDonald’s will host three “pitch sessions” at SXSW on March 13, offering an audience for tech startups with ideas for innovation in three categories:

  • Reinventing the Restaurant Experience: “This is not about tweeting, ordering online or Wi-Fi connectivity…. We are talking about multiple screens, proximity technology, personalization and even smart packaging.”
  • Content Creation: “Brands have to co-create content with communities, curate daily content to stay relevant, and create content with social in mind. How can brands tap into new content partners and models that can tackle these objectives?”
  • Transportation and Delivery: “Our existing idea of door-to-door delivery and drive-thru will soon be obsolete. Imagine a world where drones could deliver you food while you’re driving down the highway.”

The best pitch will earn the presenter a trip to McDonald’s corporate headquarters, where he or she will be invited to pitch directly to the company’s C-suite. McDonald’s says pitches will be evaluated based on “current traction and milestones,” “market potential,” “customer value proposition and service offering,” and “overall brand fit.”

“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 chief digital officer, Atif Rafiq, explained in a blog post on SXSW’s website.

How badly does McDonald’s need help on the ideas front? Already, one of its big digital technology initiatives—the Create Your Taste custom burger ordering kiosks—seems to not be going as planned. An article in USA Today suggests that the continued rollout of the kiosks is not a sure thing; it quotes a franchise consultant arguing that kiosks are “too expensive” for franchisees and “irrelevant” to drive-thru sales.

The bigger question, though, as raised by an industry analyst quoted in the USA Today piece, is whether digital innovation is what McDonald’s is missing in the first place. True, it may not have much at the moment. But that’s not why rivals such as Panera, Chipotle, and even Chick-fil-A have been eating its lunch.

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