Two iconic firsts

Two American icons saw their first appearance on May 15th. The first of these was in 1928, when Mickey Mouse made his first appearance in the silent movie “Plane Crazy,” inspired by Charles Lindbergh’s epic transatlantic solo flight made a year earlier. On the same date 12 years later, in 1940, the world’s first McDonald’s restaurant opened in San Bernardino, California.

Mickey came almost by chance. Walt Disney’s animator suggested other animals, but Walt remembered his childhood pet mouse. He was going to call him Mortimer, but his wife thought Mickey sounded more fun and youthful. Walt wanted to portray “a little fellow trying to do the best he could.” Psychologists tell us that because Mickey is drawn with all circles, it makes him appeal to us subconsciously as comfortable, with no sharp edges or angles. He is regarded as a symbol of American optimism and fun, constantly going down, but always getting up again.

His name is used derogatively to mean amateurish and unprofessional. Margaret Thatcher called the European Parliament a "Mickey Mouse parliament,” but it totally lacks Mickey’s sense of optimism and fun.

Twelve years after Mickey’s debut, Dick and Mac McDonald, having failed in the movie business, went into operating drive-in restaurants. They subsequently streamlined their operations by introducing their “Speedee Service System featuring” 15 cent hamburgers. When Ray Kroc became their franchise agent, the modern McDonalds was born. Today, the company has over 36,000 restaurants in over 100 nations.

Although sometimes criticized as junk food, a McDonald’s burger packs some of the most nutritious, low cost food ever available. Stephen Dubner, co-author of “Freakonomics,” described it as providing sustaining food at low prices, a real boon for those eating on a budget. Their double cheeseburger provides 390 calories, 23 grams of protein – half a daily serving – seven per cent of daily fibre, 19 grams of fat and 20 per cent of daily calcium, all for between 65p and £1.30, depending on which country you buy it in. Indeed, The Economist uses it as an international comparison of living costs in different countries.

Both the friendly round-eared mouse and the golden arches are brand images recognized worldwide. Both are successful and enduring international corporations, but in remaining so, both are bucking a trend which sees churn and change in the roster of market leaders. Paul Ormerod points out in “Why Most Things Fail” that most companies do not last. A look at the top 100 today shows many names unknown a generation ago, and the absence of the big names that once dominated. Sears, Kodak, J C Penney and K-Mart have been replaced in the roster by the likes of Apple, Google, Amazon and Facebook.

This is as it should be. Although some critics suggest that big firms hold their position by manipulating captive consumers, the reality is that they either adapt to what those consumers want and need, or they die. Congratulations are due to Disney and McDonalds for successfully meeting those customer wants. And congratulations, too, to Morgan Schondelmeier of the ASI, who happens to share their May 15th birthday.