The Grimace birthday promotion was an even bigger success than McDonald's expected

The burger giant, which has been a marketing force in recent years, reached “billions” with the promotion, thanks to a “genius” viral social media trend that took the company by surprise.
McDonald's Grimace Shake
McDonald's Grimace birthday promotion started out innocently enough. Then social media took over. | Photo courtesy of McDonald's

McDonald’s recently ended what might have been its most successful marketing campaigns in recent memory. And it wasn’t the driving force behind why.

In case you’ve been living under a rock, the company earlier in the summer introduced a promotion celebrating Grimace’s birthday. There were photos of him as a teenager and celebrating his birthday with friends. And because it’s McDonald’s there was a meal in his name featuring a 10-piece Chicken McNuggets or Big Mac, fries and a limited-edition purple shake of mysterious flavor components.

The social media world took it from there. The result was an absurdist, viral video trend in which users turned a routine video of themselves trying the shake while wishing Grimace a happy birthday into a horror scene, typically with someone sprawled out on the ground or bursting in a splash of purple liquid. The videos started with young people and spread to other groups, including police officers and media organizations. (Here’s a pretty good compilation.)

For McDonald’s, the result was extraordinary. According to a LinkedIn post by Guillaume Huin, who heads social media for the brand, the posts reached “billions” and generated millions in engagements and mentions. The Grimace Shake was the top trend on Twitter for eight days and it was in the top three hashtags on TikTok.  

This drove sales. Typically, promotions such as this one generate sales early and wane late as consumers lose interest. This one, according to operators, started out well and just picked up steam, peaking toward the end.

And McDonald’s insists it did not create the trend and, in fact, they were as surprised as anyone else. “If you think we planted the Grimace Shake trend, thank you. So much. But you think way too highly of us,” Huin wrote. “This was a level of genius creativity and fun that I could never dream about or plan for. It was all from the fans, and the fans only.”

He called it “peak absurdist Gen Z humor.”

Huin credited Tik Tok user Austin Frazier for creating the trend with a simple 10-second video of him trying the shake, then appearing lying on the floor with part of the purple shake all around his mouth.

He said the campaign was “already wildly successful,” from both a social and business standpoint. When the trend hit, the company at first avoided jumping in, but as it took off and employees were hit with mentions and emails about it, McDonald’s opted to give a nod to the trend, “the same way you would respectfully and gently nod at someone, without repeating what they said.”

For McDonald’s, it’s the latest in a string of marketing wins dating back three years that have driven sales and helped the company surge coming out of the pandemic. Many of these campaigns took on lives of their own, to the point of putting pressure on stores to keep pace. The Travis Scott Meal in 2020 for instance led stores to run out of things such as lettuce, a key ingredient in the meal that included a Quarter Pounder with cheese and lettuce.

A summertime loyalty program promotion last year led to a shortage of Grimace pool floats. And the company sold half of its supply of figurines for an adult Happy Meal promotion last year.

But nothing quite beat the Grimace Shake promotion. For the brand, that horror story viral trend very much had a happy ending.  

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