McDonald’s marketer gives students meaty advice

March 18, 2016 / by / 0 Comment

By Rick Vacek
GCU News Bureau

Colangelo College of Business students at Grand Canyon University have heard from a vast array of industry experts in the two years of the Dean’s Speaker Series. The president and CEO of the Arizona Super Bowl Host Committee. Top local Christian businesspeople from The Camelback Society. The author of “Conscious Capitalism.”

But Thursday, for students pursuing a master’s degree, the series went hard core — as in what Dr. Randy Gibb, the CCOB dean, called “the first hard-core marketing person we’ve ever had.”

Dean Barrett, a longtime McDonald's executive, provided students with valuable insights into the world of high-level corporate marketing Thursday.

Dean Barrett, a longtime McDonald’s executive, provided students with valuable insights into the world of high-level corporate marketing Thursday.

“It’s interesting,” Gibb said. “We’ve had entrepreneurial speakers. We’ve had sports business speakers. We’ve had branding, CEO, coaching, almost motivational-type speakers. It’s fun to mix it up for our students and expose them to some different thoughts.”

Of course, Dean Barrett himself is anything but hard core. He spent 40 years working for McDonald’s before retiring last June from his position as senior vice president and global marketing officer. That means he was involved in all those family-friendly slogans and products, such as “I’m lovin’ it!” and the Happy Meal, that have become a significant part of popular culture.

Barrett said he has visited about 85 of the 116 countries the fast-food chain has infiltrated, and he shared with the students 10 habits that he believes every successful marketing person must have. But before beginning he emphasized that those skills relate to any career in business.

The second habit — “Understand the principles of listen, learn, then lead” — was illustrated with a story that brought home the importance of listening to the customer.

In the early 2000s, Barrett said the corporation saw that sales to people 40 years and older in China were lagging badly, and he was dispatched to figure out where the problem might lie.

He listened to the opinions of staff members at corporate headquarters and workers in the field, but he didn’t really learn the situation until he went on a field trip to what’s called a “wet market,” where live poultry is killed and sold. As soon as he saw that, he realized why older people weren’t buying precooked food: They didn’t trust it.

Barrett’s solution: start an advertising campaign on food safety.

Another interesting tip Barrett passed along was the importance of collaboration. In fact, that word kept coming up over and over, in various ways, in several of his tips.

As anyone who appreciates synergy knows, good things don’t happen unless everyone on the staff feels invested and heard. Barrett talked of the importance of surrounding yourself with great people who have great insights and of accepting ideas from wherever they come.

“If people feel like they’re part of the process,” he said, “they likely will feel like part of the solution.”

He also stressed being willing to take risks and even fail sometimes. For example, he was one of the people who was behind the mid-1990s invention of the McLean Deluxe, which featured a burger separated from the vegetables to keep them from getting soggy. The reason it didn’t sell: Consumers considered it too much trouble.

“Anyone batting 1.000,” said Barrett, borrowing a baseball term, “probably is not taking risks.”

That consumer research is critical to McDonald’s and all the other major corporations. Barrett said they extensively monitor social media and every corner of the Internet looking for feedback.

But the main thing, Barrett said, is staying within the framework of your brand and knowing how to market it. “This is extremely important,” he said. “Everyone has their own brand.”

Students also could learn from Barrett’s backstory. He got his start at McDonald’s as a teenager when a friend’s brother was named the company’s new featured performer, Ronald McDonald, and help was needed with crowd and traffic control. Barrett had planned to go to law school but chose the sure thing when McDonald’s hired him for a low-end marketing job straight out of college.

And here he is today, now speaking to colleges after a highly successful career. More food for thought.

Contact Rick Vacek at (602) 639-8203 or

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