What if McDonald’s introduced PB&J sandwich?

“What if …” question is a start point for any brand growth- or innovation-related conversation in the brand consulting industry. As a matter of fact, the question is often posed beyond the professional world of branding, in real day to day life, by families planning vacation, females deciding on their date outfit, kids becoming familiar with the world around them. The power of a “what if …” question is that it nurtures our imagination, unblocks creativity and possibilities, takes away anxiety and constraints, and doesn’t cost a thing.

Personal note

A few moths ago I tried PB&J sandwich for the first time in my life. And never asked myself the magical “what if” question about combining peanut butter and jelly on a sandwich.

I’m assisting a class at the School of Visual Arts in the Masters in Branding program, and this year we started our design research class with a warm up exercise to create instructions for making PB&J sandwich (assuming our audience doesn’t know how). We brought bread, peanut butter, jelly, utensils and plates. We also gave students bigger format paper sheets and markers.

Surprisingly, no one touched the ingredients, which obviously would be the easiest way to present instructions. I was starving so I thought I should try the sandwich while the students were working. First bite, second bite — after the third I felt really full. My impressions? I felt as if I just had a Cheeseburger from McDonald’s (sorry to all PB&J fans). And, being European, I wasn’t sure about the PB&J pairing.

How come they belong together

Driven by curiosity and seeking understanding of that combination idea I traced back its history. Apparently, the first mention of combining “peanut paste” with jelly (at that time currant or crabapple) appeared in 1901 in The Boston Cooking School Magazine of Culinary Science and Domestic Economics. But there’s no information on the rationale behind that combo. We only know that the recipe for the sandwich consumed over 100 years ago was 3 thin bread layers, one layer of peanut butter between the first two bread layers, and one of jelly between the other two.

Once considered an upscale and exclusive product sold at teahouses due to its luxurious delicacy, peanut butter became a mass product in the 1920s. What increased its popularity is the pre-sliced bread that appeared after the invention of a household toaster in 1926, as well as growing reputation of jelly that started with Welch’s patented invention of Grapelade in 1917.

Peanut butter, due to its high protein content, taste and low price, became a go-to meat substitute during the Great Depression, and became even more popular later during the World War II. Given the scarcity of red meat during that period which was considered a prime energy source, American military put peanut butter, jelly and bread on their menu. The combination became a hit among returning soldiers in the post-war time.

Like a Happy Meal

1950s booming economy and low rate of unemployment created a new standard of living with new possibilities for American people. Busy parents working towards fulfillment of the American dream (working more and buying more) constituted a prefect white space for brands manufacturing peanut butter and jelly. Jelly known as deliciously wholesome fruit product with sugar (seen as good for you at that time), and peanut butter as a nutritious protein-rich dinner substitute gained popularity among parents who needed an easy and quick meal solution their children would love. Jelly brands like Kraft or Welch, peanut butter brands like Skippy or Peter Pan, and sliced bread brands like Jane Parker started advertising their products to moms and depicted pairings to convince their audience about how PB&J sandwich is exactly what your child would want, enjoy and need. Taglines like “You can’t fool kids about Peanut Butter”, “Look mommy, we left some for you” or “Hey, Mrs. America! Peanut butter makes the eating-est box lunches” clearly contributed to the widespread use of jelly and peanut butter among American families. It quickly became a tasty fast-food option (considered healthy) for busy lifestyles, and a treat kids were begging their parents to have. The paradigm still exists today.

American staple

At the same time as the demand for fast-food was increasing, McDonald’s used the economic opportunity to grow their franchisees, and the brand began to take off in the 1960s.

McDonald’s is a truly American invention, and Big Mac became the no. 1 selling sandwich in the world. PB&J sandwich became the classic American favorite consumed in almost every household and became inherent to an American home. The way PB&J sandwich gained traction in American homes, McDonald’s revolutionized the American food scene.

Now, this is the right time to ask ourselves the magic “what if…” question. What if McDonald’s introduced a PB&J sandwich to their menu? Would that opportunity make sense for the brand?

The fast-food chain positioned itself as a place of nourishment, stability and comfort (which is what the yellow arch connotes). The chain’s promise “At McDonald’s you are at home” could add more authenticity with the addition of PB&J sandwich. Moreover, the sandwich is usually consumed for breakfast or a snack, which perfectly aligns with McDonald’s successful all-day breakfast offering.

No need to worry about peanut allergies. In the new statement released in January 2017 McDonald’s informed its consumers that all its products may contain or come in contact with peanuts, tree nuts or other allergens.

Exploring the opportunity

The science behind PB&J sandwich can be pretty complex. Different individuals favor different ways of preparation. It’s a ritual; for many it’s about the process not only the outcome. What could McDonald’s offer that goes beyond the traditional in-home preparation and related enjoyment? Could the fast-food brand engage the consumer in the sandwich creation to make the entire process more personal and appealing?

Imagine McDonald’s “PBJ Bar” that consisted of a five-step customization process that gives consumers control they would have at home, but pushes the creativity given today’s consumer’s increased demand for exploration of the food scene:

  1. Bread type (white, whole wheat, multigrain)
  2. Peanut butter type (creamy, crunchy)
  3. Jelly flavor (strawberry, grape, others)
  4. Cut (diagonal, horizontal, triangles, squares)
  5. And additional toppings (fruits, maple syrup, whipped cream) or… crust removal

What if… The wandering mind is a creative mind, and that gives us freedom to uncover opportunities for brands.