Flashbulbs popped and adoring fans applauded as Venus Williams took the microphone during a promotional appearance in Athens on Friday to recount her many childhood dreams that have come true -- winning two Olympic medals and four Grand Slam titles, competing alongside sister Serena and, finally, partnering with McDonald's at the Olympic Games.
"As a child," Williams said, "I always dreamed of becoming a McDonald's athlete."
For a four-year investment estimated at $65 million, McDonald's has been designated the Official Restaurant of the 2004 Olympic Games. As such, it is the only brand-name restaurant in the Olympic athletes' village, main sports complex and press center, ensuring that virtually no Olympic athlete, fan or journalist starts the day without passing by a McDonald's.
While McDonald's has used the Olympics to sell its burgers and fries in the United States for decades, the fast-food giant is thinking globally now. And its global marketing strategy is in full swing in Athens, where the 2004 Games serve as a vehicle to extend its reach and portray its menu as part of a healthy lifestyle.
Among its high-profile pitchmen is China's Yao Ming, the No. 1 pick of the 2002 NBA draft and star of China's Olympic basketball team.
With an eye toward further expansion into China, McDonald's signed Yao as its first global ambassador earlier this year.
That is also why McDonald's chose to announce in Beijing, host of the 2008 Olympics, that it had extended its Olympic sponsorship through 2012. The company plans to increase the number of McDonald's in China by 65 percent, from 600 to 1,000, in time for Opening Ceremonies of the 2008 Games.
"It's one of our priority growth markets in the world," said Lawrence Light, the company's global chief marketing officer, who estimates that China has 300 million potential McDonald's customers. "It's a pretty huge opportunity for a brand like ours."
Just over a year ago, McDonald's, the world's leading fast-food company, was struggling with falling sales and posted its first quarterly loss. But the company has since turned around, and profit was up 25 percent in the latest quarter, partly due to growing sales of its salads.
Yao isn't the only Olympian under contract as a global ambassador to McDonald's. Gold-medal winning racewalker Robert Korzeniowski of Poland is. So are Americans Venus and Serena Williams, who signed on in June.
Yao is featured in a commercial shot especially for the Olympics. The spot opens with a jet touching down in Athens. A wide-eyed young man gets off, boards a bus and gapes awestruck as he rides past the Acropolis and Temple of Zeus. Then he phones home, gushing, "Can you believe I'm actually here?" A voice replies, "It's because you earned it!" The next image shows the young man standing behind a McDonald's counter and handing a take-out bag to a smiling Yao. A voice-over explains that top employees at McDonald's will be staffing its Olympic outlets, "so our best can serve the world's best!"
But few world-class athletes eat fast-food routinely.
U.S. cyclist George Hincapie, who recently completed the Tour de France, said it's not on his diet, though he might stop by for some fries after finishing his Olympic race.
U.S. gymnast Carly Patterson said during a media event in May that she couldn't remember the last time she had eaten at McDonald's. This week, with her image adorning the chain's Olympic-themed packages and cups, Patterson said she had recently enjoyed a McDonald's salad and yogurt parfait. "It's fruit and yogurt." Patterson said. "It's good for you."
Venus Williams and former Olympic champion swimmer Janet Evans were even more enthusiastic boosters during a McDonald's news conference Friday morning. The event was attended by the top brass of McDonald's, hundreds of McDonald's employees who'd been flown in to staff its restaurants and International Olympic Committee President Jacques Rogge, who thanked the company for its financial support of the Games. Rogge, a Belgian, praised McDonald's employees for sharing the Olympic values of dedication, hard work and team spirit, and he led everyone in a team-building exercise in which they recited "Good morning" in Greek, English, Russian, Spanish, French, Italian, Korean and Chinese.
McDonald's vice chairman James A. Skinner called it "a very proud day for all of us at McDonald's." And then the show began, with Williams and Evans, without an excess ounce of body fat between them, accompanying teams of servers to a full-blown burger-preparation stand where the hundreds of buns, burgers, lettuce, pickles and condiments waited to be assembled into Big Macs.
With Williams and Evans serving as rival coaches, four teams faced off in two rounds to see who could whip up the most Big Macs in three minutes. The McDonald's global marketing vision goes well beyond Olympic sponsorship, Light said. There are plans to raise global brand awareness through music, fashion and entertainment, too. The fast-food chain recently unveiled a partnership with Sony that enables customers to download songs from the Internet. It has created a line of children's clothes called "McKids" and has opened 15 children's stores in China that sell McDonald's-themed books, videos, toys and outfits. Electronic games are in production.
Says Light: "Our strategy is to develop McDonald's as a lifestyle brand -- not just as a food brand."