Lessons for Brands from McDonald’s $5 Value Meal Strategy

Shah Mohammed
6 min readJun 22, 2024

McDonald’s recent introduction of a $5 value meal has sent shockwaves through the fast food industry, triggering discussions about price wars, profitability, and brand strategy. As a market leader with significant scale and operational efficiency, McDonald’s is well-positioned to make this aggressive price move. However, for other brands considering a similar strategy, there are important lessons and factors to keep in mind.

  1. Competitive positioning and brand identity: Brands must ensure that a value offering aligns with their overall strategy, target market, and desired brand image. A misaligned value offering can confuse customers and dilute brand equity. For McDonald’s, the $5 meal reinforces its long-standing position as an affordable, convenient option for a broad customer base, aligning perfectly with their strategy of being accessible to value-conscious consumers. The offering fits seamlessly with McDonald’s brand promise and enhances its appeal to its core target audience.
  2. Operational efficiency and cost structure: Before pursuing aggressive pricing, brands should optimize their operations and cost structure. This includes streamlining processes, leveraging technology, and building economies of scale. McDonald’s decades of investment in supply chain, automation, and standardization enable them to offer low prices while maintaining profitability efficiently. They have fine-tuned their operations to minimize waste, optimize labour, and secure favourable supplier contracts, creating a lean cost structure that supports their value strategy.
  3. Loss leader strategy and menu mix: Loss leaders can be used strategically as part of a balanced menu and margin mix. The goal is to attract customers with a compelling value offer, and then encourage additional purchases of higher-margin items. The $5 meal can drive traffic and encourage additional purchases of higher-margin items for McDonald’s, as they carefully design their menu to optimize overall profitability. They use data analytics to understand customer behavior and menu item affinities, ensuring the $5 meal is part of a carefully calibrated menu strategy. It’s important to note that a loss leader strategy may not be effective for brands with a limited product range. If a brand offers only one or a few products, discounting may simply erode margins without the opportunity to drive additional purchases. The key is having a diverse product mix that allows for cross-selling and upselling.
  4. Marketing impact and customer perceptions: Value offerings can be leveraged to generate buzz and shape brand perceptions. A well-promoted value offering can create a “halo effect,” improving overall brand affordability and accessibility perceptions. Heavily promoting the $5 meal creates this halo effect for McDonald’s, making the entire brand seem more affordable and accessible, aligning with their strategy of appealing to a wide customer base. The promotion also generates significant media attention and word-of-mouth buzz, amplifying its impact.
  5. Long-term sustainability and competitive response: Brands must consider the long-term implications of value strategies and anticipate competitor reactions. Sustaining an aggressive value strategy requires significant financial resilience and a willingness to absorb short-term margin pressures. With its scale and resources, McDonald’s is well-positioned to sustain a value strategy over time and quickly adjust tactics in response to competitor moves. They have the market clout and agility to maintain their value leadership position.
  6. Customer lifetime value and loyalty: Balancing short-term value with long-term customer relationships is crucial. While a value offering may have lower immediate margins, it can attract new customers and build loyalty over time, driving higher lifetime value. The $5 meal can attract new customers and build loyalty over time for McDonald’s, as they focus on lifetime value, not just immediate margins, to drive long-term growth. They view the $5 meal as an investment in customer acquisition and retention, recognizing that loyal customers drive significant long-term value.
  7. Market segmentation and targeting: Value can be used to reach specific customer segments as part of a broader strategy. Different customer segments have different value perceptions and price sensitivities. The $5 meal targets value-conscious consumers, a key segment for McDonald’s, while they maintain a range of offerings to appeal to diverse customer needs and occasions. By segmenting their market and offering targeted value, McDonald’s can drive traffic and sales across multiple customer groups.
  8. Product quality and differentiation: A value offering should not compromise quality or unique selling points. Brands must maintain their core product attributes and points of differentiation, even at lower price points. While offering value, McDonald’s still prioritizes core product attributes like taste, consistency, speed of delivery, and convenience that differentiate its brand. They ensure the $5 meal meets their rigorous quality standards and delivers on their brand promise, maintaining customer trust and loyalty.
  9. Franchisee and stakeholder alignment: Pricing decisions must consider the impact on key stakeholders, particularly in a franchise system. Franchisees must be able to profitably execute value strategies, and their buy-in is critical. McDonald’s works closely with franchisees to ensure value strategies are sustainable and profitable for the entire system, recognizing that alignment is key to successfully executing a system-wide value approach. They collaborate with franchisees on menu development, pricing, and promotion to ensure a win-win approach.
  10. Strategic nudging and behavioural economics: Value offerings can be used to nudge customer behaviour and drive broader sales. By offering a compelling value item, like the $5 meal, brands can attract customers and influence their purchase decisions. This is particularly effective in times of economic uncertainty or high inflation, when consumers are seeking affordable options. The value item serves as an anchor, making other menu items seem more reasonably priced by comparison. It also acts as a foot-in-the-door technique, encouraging customers to make additional purchases once they’ve committed to the initial value offering. Brands should consider the principles of behavioural economics when crafting value strategies, using nudges like scarcity, urgency, and framing to drive desired customer behaviours. McDonald’s $5 meal is a timely and effective nudge that capitalizes on current economic conditions to drive traffic and sales.
  11. Complementary product ecosystem: A value offering can be used to drive sales of complementary products or services. Just as Apple’s 99-cent songs drove iPod sales and iTunes purchases, a well-designed value offering can spur demand for related items. McDonald’s $5 meal can encourage customers to purchase fries, drinks, or other add-ons, driving incremental sales and profits. Brands should consider how a value item fits within their broader product ecosystem and how it can be used to cross-sell and upsell complementary offerings. By creating a compelling entry point and then offering relevant add-ons, brands can maximize the impact of their value strategies.

Ultimately, the decision to compete on price or introduce a value offering requires a holistic view of a brand’s unique market position, capabilities, and long-term objectives. Value should be part of a clear segmentation strategy to effectively reach and serve distinct customer groups, while still maintaining differentiation and brand identity. The most successful brands will find ways to deliver both value and unique benefits to their target customers, rather than relying solely on price as a competitive lever.

As the fast food industry continues to evolve, it will be interesting to see how brands navigate the complex dynamics of value, profitability, and growth. While McDonald’s $5 value meal is a bold move, it also highlights the importance of strategic thinking, operational excellence, and customer focus for all players in the market.