McDonald's (MCD) is busily remodeling its U.S. locations, accessorizing interiors with flat-panel televisions and plush chairs—even the exteriors are made of real brick these days (BusinessWeek, 5/15/06). Now the Oak Brook (Ill.) chain is turning to its packaging. In early November the king of cheap eats began rolling out new packaging across its 13,900 U.S. restaurants that aims to make the containers for its sandwiches, french fries, and soft drinks more relevant to today's consumers, and not look like a throwback to the 1990s.
The new packaging is splashed with bold text and crisp imagery. Unlike the previous no-frills white and red box, the new Big Mac container, for example, triumphantly exclaims in heavy block text, "There is only one." On one side, plucky marketing copy extols the Big Mac's height while, on another, the vegetables, cheese, and cooking utensils used in the burger's making are highlighted. The goal, says Mary Dillon, McDonald's global chief marketing officer, is to "create unique personalities for our menu items by telling a story about each one."
McDonald's is also trying to stay ahead of concerns over obesity as well as the healthfulness and safety of food supplies around the world. Full-color photographs of ingredients are intended to remind customers that, for instance, a Quarter Pounder is, indeed, made of real food. The company's iconic red, yellow, and white French fry package now features a partially peeled potato on the front. Smaller sandwiches will retain their simpler paper wrapper, though new versions are adorned with block text similar to boxed products. Says Dillon: "This demonstrates the authenticity of the locally grown ingredients we use."
(The packaging, of course, retains the nutritional information required by food labeling laws cropping up in the U.S. and elsewhere.)
A Global Redesign
True to its global mission, the company plans to introduce its latest design over the next two years in every one of the 118 countries in which it operates. That includes translations into 21 languages. Dillon won't say what the company spent on the redesign. But New York-based brand consultant Dean Crutchfield notes that similar mass branding projects at giants like Unilever (UN) have cost from $50 million to $80 million. Dillon says the launch will be "cost-neutral," since new packaging will roll out as supplies of older materials are used up. McDonald's last redesigned its packaging in 2003, but this is the first time it has attempted to employ a uniform look and feel the world over.
McDonald's started working with Boxer, a branding firm based in Birmingham, England, on the new packaging in August 2007. Paul Castledine, Boxer's chairman and chief creative officer, says designers spent hundreds of hours in focus groups before settling on the concept of provocative headlines bolstered by vivid photography. But a design that relies so heavily on typography proved too much to handle in so many languages. "We would always start with German," jokes Castledine about that language's characteristically long words.
More important, Castledine says the company has developed a template that can be modified to different markets. Boxer created an online style guide and library of images available to franchises around the world. Says Castledine: "There's nothing worse than a global brand that isn't locally relevant." In Australia, for instance, packaging highlights beef sourced in nearby New Zealand. In Argentina, some sandwiches feature images of marinated seasoned onions, a regional delicacy. And throughout Europe, Le Hamburger's ciabatta roll is called out.
Advantages of Continuity
More than merely an aesthetic exercise, McDonald's rollout is one of the most ambitious in the growing number of digital asset-management systems—online repositories of branding materials like logos, images, and video clips that marketers have access to. Advertising giant Ogilvy & Mather built the first such system in 2001 for IBM (IBM). And Coca-Cola (KO) is currently rolling out a similar system (BusinessWeek, 10/13/08). "The scale is hard for most people to imagine," says Aaron Keller, managing principal of Minneapolis-based design firm Capsule. By 2010 nearly 56 million customers a day will be staring at similar if not identical McDonald's packaging designs.
Still, the new packaging forgoes the clever shapes that design-savvy companies routinely show off—think the intricate folding boxes of Apple's (AAPL) iPod or the bulbous shape of popular pomegranate drink POM. Then again, for a company that sells 550 million Big Macs a year in America alone, keeping it simple may have its advantages. And continuity, says the company, will enable 82% of its consumer packaging to continue being made from renewable paper or wood materials. What's more, Boxer's Castledine says, alternative shapes tested poorly with McDonald's employees. "The current box is well loved by the cooking crews," he says.
McDonald's Dillon says the company knows many consumers will end up tossing out the new packaging without giving the design more than a passing glance. Still, she insists the new design presents an opportunity to strengthen the McDonald's brand. "People want to know more and more about the food they're eating," adds Castledine. "And, well, the box is the most intimate touch point with any brand."
Vella is a writer for BusinessWeek.com in New York.