Case Study: McDonald’s Surprise Alarm

McDonald’s has been running a promotion entitled ‘National Breakfast Day’ across Asia, Middle East and Africa. The aim is to promote the restaurant’s (slightly less popular) breakfast menu. Each time 1,000 Egg McMuffins are given away for free to the first 1,000 people to turn up during breakfast hours. However free giveaways have not proven to be particularly effective in changing consumer behaviour, i.e. driving sales of breakfasts.

For most of us our (smart) phone is literally the most personal item in our daily lives. Several studies have found that a large number of people keep our devices under the pillow. Most people find getting up in the morning tough. And McDonald’s is certainly not the first thing on our minds when turning off that alarm clock…



McDonald’s might be a popular choice for lunch and satisfying midnight hunger pangs but McDonald’s felt that not enough Asians were heading to their restaurants at breakfast time. They wanted to promote their variety range of breakfast offers, which thus far haven’t been very popular as people are simply not aware of them. ‘National Breakfast Day’ is an attempt to turn this around.


Essentially ‘National Breakfast Day’ is a good old-fashioned sampling event. Sure, giving a free McMuffin might result in a temporary spike in sales, but is this sustainable in the long run? Therefore, McDonald’s still faced the challenge of making its brand relevant to mornings.


People are constantly interacting with their smartphones. Even before going to bed, most of us have one last quick look at our emails and social media feeds. It is estimated that a staggering 83% of millennials use their phones as an alarm clock, and sleep with their phones within reach! So what if McDonald’s could engage consumers at the very minute they wake up and put McDonald’s breakfast at the top of their agenda?




DDB Group Singapore didn’t attempt to disrupt normal human behaviour. Instead they incorporated a marketing message for the client McDonald’s in a relevant and useful way by creating the “McDonald’s Surprise Alarm” application: a handy alarm clock with a welcome added-value twist. Every morning brought users nice surprises: a free song, free food, an inspirational quote, vouchers and more.


The app was available on iOS and Android. First-time users had to register via Facebook. When setting their alarm, users could choose from a preferred alarm sound or alternatively opt for “Surprise Me”. If the “Surprise Me” option was chosen, ringtones were related to the surprise received. Although multiple alarms could be set, users only got a surprise once each day(!).

Vinod Savio from DDB Group Singapore describes the range of ‘surprises’: “It was a 60:40 split between McDonald’s products and entertaining content. All the vouchers were time stamped, that way we could track the redeeming process.

The entertaining content was built on the pillars of the brand’s personality. For instance we had tips for getting ready in the morning or to be more motivated during the day. We just wanted to put a smile on people’s face. There’s around 700 pieces of content. A smart CMS system distributed this content based on individual usage and redeeming habits. The more you engaged with the app, the smarter it got.“

On some days, users could receive a free music track, thanks to McDonald’s partnership with Sony Music.


The app was timed to be released alongside the ‘National Breakfast Day’. It was an instant hit and didn’t need much of an additional push. Some short-term methods were used in the early stages: mobile banners, Facebook app download ads, and Google AdWords search extensions.

“This year they (McDonald’s) had a lot of communication and PR going on around National Breakfast Day. The same means were used to notify people about the app. PR and influencers sparked conversations around the initiative. We had some ad spend for app stores, but it was quite organic. We didn’t have to do too much. It was already the #2 app by the time of the launch. We hit our target the following day,“ says Vinod Savio, Creative Director at DDB Group Singapore/Tribal Worldwide.


At the regional level, the client is trying to see if McDonald’s could take this app to other markets beyond Singapore. The app effectively became a separate media channel for the brand. As the engagement rate was very high, McDonald’s has adjusted the promotional rewards, i.e. scaled down the number of offers.


The handy McDonald’s Surprise Alarm app wasn’t just a branded tool that people could exploit to get free stuff. The Surprise Alarm delivered some serious results, both in terms of awareness and sales:

// Within days, the app climbed to #1 spot on both Google and Apple app stores;

// In 5 weeks, it achieved over 281,000 downloads;

// 93% registered users;

// 68,044 shares on social media;

// Delivered over 2.8 million surprises – of which, 400,000 were converted to footfall to restaurants, as users redeemed their rewards;

// The app surpassed its 6-month download target in 3 weeks;

// Three months after the launch: the promotion achieved an engagement rate of 93%, which means almost all downloaders were using the app daily. The engagement was higher than generated by almost all McDonald’s’ other digital assets put together;

// Total Content Delivered (coupons+content) is 64,260,761.

The agency was also delighted with the results claims Vinod Savio from DDB Group Singapore: “It has driven a lot of footfall. The app had about 20% of in-store redemption. We were able to move people to come into the restaurant. Initially it started off from a lot of ‘free stuff’, but now the vouchers are more of an upgrade. It’s purchase based now. That way they have some amount of calculation on how much money has to be spent for it to be sustainable. The value of the vouchers are worked out around that system.”



People in general have a tendency to download a lot of apps to their smart phones and only use 3-5 of them regularly. That’s why most branded apps fail; some almost immediately. The key (as proven again and again) is to offer something which is useful over the long-run. An alarm clock is a great example, especially if there’s a nice twist involved. The brand owner also needs to tweak and optimize the app regularly as there is a high chance for engagement to wear off over time.


The McDonald’s Surprise Alarm promotion was well-planned and thought-through. It was based on research and sound insights into the wants and needs of the target audience. McDonald’s and their agency engaged their audience at a ‘human level’ building on an understanding of their daily habits.

“We built an app that complemented their behaviour. Everybody wakes up to an alarm set on their mobile. You just had to set the alarm and wake up! It was that easy and natural. Most marketers try to build games or test people’s patience in some way or the other. However, people don’t have the time to invest in these actions,“ explains Vinod Savio, Creative Director at DDB Group Singapore.


Vinod Savio adds that part of the success came thanks to DDB’s in-house expertise, which meant that new content was created and included continuously; this required creativity and operational capabilities as well as a close relationship between the agency and McDonald’s.






“What stood out for me in this campaign is the way that McDonald’s used a smartphone to make an everyday routine more rewarding.

Everyday routine… I like the way that, by default, an alarm clock app, lends itself to everyday usage, increasing the engagement rate of the app. It also doesn’t make you do something contrived that you wouldn’t normally do, like answer quiz questions and explore their products to win something – you have to wake up anyway, so you might as well use their app to do so, and get something for nothing in the process.

More rewarding… I loved the feature that it learns about the customer as it goes along, so instead of becoming familiar and boring as you use it every day, the app, through the content and rewards it delivered, became more relevant and valuable to the user.

It was clever that McDonald’s did not only control the reward redemption based on the user’s likes, dislikes and habits, but could match the available rewards against its footfall and purchases targets, creating business sustainability and definite return on investment. McDonald’s could cleverly adjust the ratio of free content to music to coupons – depending on the uptake of the app. The choice of rewards were relatively low-cost to McDonald’s as they leveraged free content (created in-house with their agency), with free music (through their partnership with Sony Music) and coupons (either requiring you to purchase something with it or not). Some reward coupons required a purchase, others could just be redeemed on their own and the user could walk out the door, leaving them feeling that they had really got something for nothing. Strategically, each coupon had an expiry date/ time, thereby giving the customer a sense of urgency to get to McDonald’s!

With the inevitable success of this app, and the inevitable long morning queues it must have created, I would suggest for the next version they add to the reward content a Jump-the-Queue-Pass!”

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