The most coveted collaboration in music in 2021 isn’t a track from Kenny Beats or a guest verse from Justin Bieber. It’s an artist-branded meal or menu item with a national fast-food chain, thanks to a trend kick-started by Travis Scott and McDonald’s in September 2020. The fast-food chain’s first-ever Famous Order with a musician, dubbed the Travis Scott Meal, became an instant sensation, prompting sellouts of key ingredients for Scott’s fave — the Quarter Pounder with cheese — and a resell craze around Scott’s branded McDonald’s merch items, including T-shirts, shorts and a McNuggets body pillow.
In the nearly 18 months since the Travis Scott Meal first appeared, a veritable fast-food frenzy has swept the music industry. Not only has McDonald’s rolled out similar Famous Order partnerships with J Balvin, BTS and Saweetie, but several of its competitors have followed suit: In August, Taco Bell teamed with Lil Nas X to make the rapper the chain’s first chief impact officer and star in a campaign designed to promote its breakfast menu. In September, Burger King introduced a trio of Keep It Real meals featuring the real names of rapper Nelly (Cornell Haynes Jr.) and Brazilian pop singer Anitta (Larissa Machado) inspired by the chain’s introduction of organic ingredients. And in October, Burger King sister company Popeyes tapped Megan Thee Stallion to co-create a Hottie Sauce to spice up key menu items like its signature chicken sandwich as well as to collaborate on branded merch.
Why the sudden craze? For starters, the music-themed meals have a proven track record in driving an enviable combo of sales and social buzz. McDonald’s has seen direct lifts in U.S. sales from its Famous Orders with J Balvin and BTS (the first Famous Meal launched globally, in 50 markets worldwide), as well as being a recurring trending topic on Twitter with its Saweetie Meal.
“They’ve all been hugely successful in their own ways and have allowed us to create lasting connections with our customers — especially younger generations, keeping the brand fresh and relevant,” says Jennifer Healan, vice president of U.S. marketing, brand content and engagement for McDonald’s USA.
In turn, the campaigns can drive exposure for the artists. In the weeks following her McDonald’s meal, which was promoted heavily across everything from primetime TV to digital media, Saweetie added nearly 3 million new followers across her social medi accounts, including 1 million on Instagram alone.
“That kind of growth from a national campaign really helped utilize her and showcase her in a meaningful way,” says Jordan Solomon, commercial endorsements agent at CAA, who brokered the Saweetie-McDonald’s deal. “It used her song ‘Fast (Motion),’ which was the single at the time, as well as a ton of Easter eggs and things that fans were spotting throughout the national commercial that incorporated her personality here and there,” Solomon says. The exposure likely helped set the stage for other milestones in Saweetie’s career, including her Nov. 20 debut as a musical guest on “Saturday Night Live.”
Though the deals can be quite lucrative for artists (Scott netted a reported $20 million from his McDonald’s partnership, including $15 million in merch sales), the latest wave of fast-food team-ups has philanthropy at its core too. Lil Nas X’s duties as Taco Bell’s chief impact officer include selecting employees (or team members) to be recipients of the company’s Live Más scholarship program, as a nod to the rapper’s own history as a Taco Bell team member in 2017 near his hometown of Atlanta.
“We didn’t want to repeat what had been done perhaps with other artists and fast-food restaurants in terms of a meal,” says Jennifer Frommer, senior VP of creative and licensing at the artist’s label, Columbia Records. “We wanted to do something that was much more authentic to what Nas does, and what better than impact?”