Brand Strategy

McDonald’s jingle, 20 years later

Since 2003, the chain has seen menu items, ad agencies, and CEOs come and go. Its jingle, however, has been a constant.
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Francis Scialabba

· 7 min read

Everyone knows the McDonald’s jingle. Even people who think they don’t.

On a 90-degree day at Brooklyn’s McCarren Park in early September, parkgoer Kash Livingston told us he wasn’t familiar with the jingle. But as soon as he heard “ba da ba ba ba,” he said, “I’m Lovin’ It.”

In 2003, the fast-food giant reportedly paid Justin Timberlake $6 million to sing it. In the two decades since, other celebrities, from Destiny’s Child to Brian Cox, have put their spins on the tune. Its origins and credits have been the subject of much debate, but one thing is clear: It’s one of the most recognizable jingles in the world.

“It’s embedded in my brain at this point,” Nina Benitich, another park visitor walking two dogs, said that same day.

How did McDonald’s achieve every brand’s dream of living rent-free in the heads of basically every person? It started, as most things in advertising do, with an RFP.

American idol

In February 2003, McDonald’s asked 14 agencies across several countries to pitch ideas for a global campaign centered around music, Franco Tortora, co-founder and CEO of German music production company Mona Davis, told Marketing Brew.

Around that time, the company posted its first-ever quarterly loss and shareholders weren’t pleased, hence the massive call for ideas, according to Colleen Fahey, who was the executive creative director at the agency then responsible for in-store and promotional marketing for McDonald’s (then called Frankel & Co., now called Arc Worldwide).

McDonald’s asked for the song to be hip-hop, since it was at the time losing ground with young consumers and wanted to change that, Tortora said. German agency Heye & Partner had already created the slogan “I’m Lovin’ It” as part of the pitch process, according to Tortora, and then brought Mona Davis in to write music to go along with it. Hip-hop was born in the US, so he thought the German team didn’t stand a chance.

It was about 3am in a recording studio after a long session, everyone losing steam, when Tortora said he asked the vocalist he was working with to sing something like “ba-ba-ba-whatever” before calling it a night.

“I wasn’t really convinced that night that any of it was good, but then the next morning, I started to listen to the last one and said, ‘Not so bad,’” Tortora told us. “It wasn’t intentionally composed; it was accidentally composed, because we had no other ideas.”

That was the idea Heye & Partner and Mona Davis ultimately presented to McDonald’s. They, along with four other agencies, moved on to the next round in the process.

They also moved past the next stage—proving the tune could work well in other languages, countries, and music styles—to become one of just three agencies in the running, Tortora said. After creating different arrangements meant to go along with specific events like the Olympics, it was down to just the German team and one American agency.

“It was really like the Oscars,” Tortora said. While he wasn’t in the room for the announcement, a colleague told him there were around “800 people in this room, and 20 were from Germany, and the rest were American. The guy in front said, ‘And the winner is Germany,’ and 20 people went, ‘yay,’ and the others were looking grumpy.”

Since then, the jingle’s origins have been debated, most notably when Pusha T claimed that he wrote the jingle. But Tortora and co-founder Tom Batoy are widely credited across industry royalty-tracking databases as the songwriters of “I’m Lovin’ It,” according to Pitchfork.

Secret sauce

“I’m Lovin’ It” wasn’t the first jingle McDonald’s used in its marketing; the fast-food company certainly tried its hand at music before. Some true fans might remember “You Deserve a Break Today,” “We Do It All For You,” “We Love to See You Smile,” or the menu song, sometimes unearthed on TikTok.

Yet none have stuck around as long as “I’m Lovin’ It,” which became the company’s longest-running campaign after just seven years, according to Ad Age.

Marketers have their theories as to why. Fahey described it as “innocent” and “singable,” while Susan Westwater—who worked on McDonald’s campaigns with Fahey at Frankel in the ’90s—said the tune brings about a “jolt of joy,” perhaps because the notes go up. It’s “timeless,” she said.

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Garrett Crosby, owner of sonic branding agency We Time Audio House, said shifting from “you” and “we” language in prior jingles to first-person in “I’m Lovin’ It” may have helped its longevity. Jennifer Heape, co-founder and COO of voice agency Vixen Labs, which built an Alexa Skill for McDonald’s in the UK, chalked it up in part to “sheer repetition,” something others agreed is necessary for a successful sonic logo.

“They played around with it, but they’ve never messed with the DNA of it,” Heape said. “They’ve kept it consistent. It is on everything. The thought of having a McDonald’s ad without that sound is just impossible.”

Perhaps no explanation came up more among audio marketers than this: It’s simple.

Freshen up

Consistency is key, but after 20 years, it’s easy to imagine how one simple tune can go from a catchy earworm to an annoyance. McDonald’s seems to have avoided that, marketers said.

“The melody stays consistent, but the execution of it gets changed from time to time, and so it definitely feels familiar, but fresh,” Scot Westwater, who co-founded voice marketing consultancy Pragmatic Digital with Susan, said.

Celebrities—and even other companies—have helped with that. When McDonald’s created a celebrity meal with J Balvin in 2020, the singer said “I’m Lovin’ It” at the end of an ad he starred in. Succession star Cox sang “ba da ba ba ba” in a commercial for the brand that same year. When McDonald’s collabed with Cactus Plant Flea Market last year, the streetwear brand put its own twist on the tune.

Though McDonald’s declined to weigh in for this story, earlier this year, VP of US Marketing Jennifer Healan told us that the move to put new spins on the jingle marked a slight change of course.

“We have loosened the reins of how we think about those things that are so precious to the brand,” she said. “We still hold on to them in their iconic form, but what we have done is we partnered with [agency of record] Wieden+Kennedy, as well as with our different creative partners, and shared the pen,” asking others to lend their voices to the song.

That helps keep “I’m Lovin’ It” relevant without changing its DNA, Brandon Pracht, managing director of McDonald’s Global at Wieden+Kennedy, added. “It is such a useful tool, and it’s so meaningful to people,” he said.

Scot Westwater called the jingle a “cultural phenomenon,” and integrating into pop culture is undoubtedly part of the brand’s marketing plan. Look no further than its “As Featured In” ad from the summer, a compilation of McDonald’s references from iconic movies and TV shows throughout the years.

The pop-culture strategy dates back to the early days of the jingle, when Timberlake recorded a hit single complete with music video. That was basically a “trojan horse” for the McDonald’s jingle, Crosby said.

Song of the future?

It’s impossible to predict whether “I’m Lovin’ It” will last another two decades, but Susan Westwater said she’d “probably caution” McDonald’s against changing it any time soon.

“It’s kind of like when sports teams fire a coach,” she said. “You only fire a coach because there’s a better option. I don’t know what the better option would be.”

Plus, building a jingle with such a high level of recognition takes time. As Panera’s SVP of brand building Drayton Martin told us last year when the chain introduced a new sound, “The key with audio, more than anything else, is discipline…sheer time is a factor in really cementing that audio association.”

Twenty years in, McDonald’s commitment to the tune seems to have paid off. When Vixen Labs was working on the McDonald’s voice skill, Heape said the jingle was untouchable, even “sacred.” Pracht said as soon as Wieden+Kennedy got the account, they knew they were dealing with something iconic. Scot Westwater said it’s one of his go-to examples of sonic branding.

“I totally tip my hat to McDonald’s for holding onto the same idea for so long,” Fahey said. “It’s a feat that they did that.”

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