Quick fix

On the face of it, fast-food restaurants have never had it so good. The global empires of McDonald’s, Burger King and KFC are booming as more and more countries are getting a taste for hamburgers, fries and fried chicken. In the UK alone, more than £27bn a year is spent on fast food, according to market research group Mintel, making it Europe’s fast-food capital. In other European countries, such as Spain and Italy, the market is much smaller, but the growth higher – over the past five years spending has risen in those two countries by a massive 157 per cent and 169 per cent respectively. But despite all the success, the garden is not as rosy as those companies would have us believe.

Over the past decade, the fast-food market has begun to change. As an increasing number of families find that both parents are working, the importance of quality fast food as a meal has increased, and consumers have moved away from the Eighties obsession with the “I want it faster, I want it now” meal, in favour of something quick, but nourishing. There has, at the same time, been an increasing awareness of the social and environmental implications of a disposable culture, and this has led to fast-food chains carefully re-evaluating their brands.

While burger joints are not known for their award-winning designs, they still take their branding very seriously. These giants have recently witnessed the emergence, in the US and UK at least, of a new generation of highly-branded fast-food outlets in the form of coffee, sandwich, bagel, soup, juice and tea chains. While these are not direct competitors, the proliferation of such concepts is changing the look of UK high streets, and may have some bearing on the positioning of the traditional chains.

Eighteen months ago KFC, or Kentucky Fried Chicken, as it was previously called, was the first of the big chains to revamp in response to changing market conditions. Unlike its rival burger chains, KFC has had problems with being seen as not fast enough. The perception was that KFC provided a more substantial meal. In the Eighties, it concentrated its design and branding efforts on projecting speed. However, this detracted from its “real food” credentials, which began to hurt it in the Nineties.

KFC decided it needed to reposition itself significantly . Richard Brandt, creative director at Landor Associates in the US, explains the context of KFC’s decision: “At the time there was a chain in the US that was doing extremely well – Boston Market – which was based on a chicken offering, but it enhanced its side dishes, so it felt more like a real meal than any other quick service restaurant.”

In response, KFC worked hard to improve the quality of its food, but having done so felt that its branding and design was now letting it down. Landor was briefed to come up with a new design that better reflected the qualities it was trying to project, and build up its brand recognition, which it felt was deteriorating.

In the Eighties, KFC reduced the importance of Colonel Sanders, the chain’s deceased founder. However, in tests, KFC found that he was by far and away its most recognised image, much more so than the chain’s name. “During the design exploratory, we found that what we had was a recognisable equity on a global basis,” says Brandt. The Colonel was also associated with quality food, so Brandt and his team came up with a design that enlarged the image of the Colonel and updated it. “Even though he’s in heaven, he’s looking down and it’s his recipe,” continues Brandt.

Another element of the transformation was to substitute the picture of the Colonel looking serious and complacent, with one of him smiling. Brandt searched through all the pictures to find the one with the right smile, which happened to be a picture of him arm in arm with the 36th US president, Lyndon B Johnson.

Though burger chains occupy a slightly different place in the market, they have also been affected by the changing attitudes and habits of customers. Burger King announced in April that it was giving its restaurants and image a facelift, with interiors and identity by Fitch and The Sterling Group respectively.

According to a Burger King spokesman, the changes are: “larger, more dynamic lettering bursting out of the buns with everything set on an angle to suggest motion and dimension. A third colour – blue – is also being added in the form of a crescent surrounding the bun halves.”

The decision to add blue is significant. KFC went to considerable trouble to establish its ownership of red, the colour most associated with fast food, including coating their buckets in red, a decision that costs the company millions of dollars a year.

Blue has not been commonly used in fast-food design, and is a colour scheme Burger King will also include inside its restaurants. Other changes inside the outlets include a Virtual Fun Centre – an interactive, non-violent computer game system for kids – and improved broilers, which are designed to better service the company’s “have it your way” kitchen. All these elements point towards Burger King’s message that it is offering a quality eating experience, in line with its advertising campaign based on assertions about the quality of its food.

McDonald’s reaction to the changing demands of the fast-food market has been less decisive. Indeed, it feels no need to change, according to design director Barrie Flack: “The customer base we have is very solid and its expectations are met by the ranges we have and the way we operate.” Flack can point to compelling evidence to back up his claim. In Mintel’s European fast-food survey, McDonald’s was the only chain found in every European city. Additionally, an independent survey by Interbrand last year found that McDonald’s was the most recognised brand in the world.

However, success brings its own problems, and some commentators have asked whether the gold is flaking off its arches. Last month the company bought the London-based Aroma café chain, which specialises in take-away and eat-in coffee and sandwiches, and is a response to the demands of older, trendier consumers for fast food and coffee from somewhere more up-market. “It’s a highly unusual move for McDonald’s because it has traditionally grown by franchising one brand,” Luke Johnson, founder of Pizza Express and chairman of the Belgo Group was quoted as saying in Marketing Week. “It tells me it’s scraping around for new avenues and it must be under pressure from the likes of Starbucks. It smacks of desperation.”

McDonald’s says it is going to keep the two operations entirely separate. And buying into the lucrative coffee-house market is perhaps not a commercially foolish decision, particularly considering that the other coffee chains are being snapped up by corporate sharks.

Many analysts also think that the crossover between the fast-food and coffee-house markets is limited, and financially will affect McDonald’s very little. However, to think that McDonald’s is impervious to the new demands of consumers is naïve. As Brandt at Landor says, in branding terms “speed and quality are diametrically opposed to each other”, and McDonald’s is known for being the fastest in the West.

In some ways McDonald’s, which uses a host of interior design consultancies, has become a victim of its own success. The ambivalence of western European consumers to the chain is due to the same reason Muscovites dress in their smartest clothes to spend a month’s wages on a Big Mac and fries – McDonald’s has become the epitome of the American, successful, throw-away culture. The intense interest in the McLibel trial was recognition of the emblematic nature of its brand.

Evidence that Mc Donald’s recognises this fact is its latest corporate brochure, which was designed to sell the company as a responsible corporate citizen to politicians, journalists and other agenda setters. It is an elegant, glossy publication full of photo-journalistic pictures of various images, many of which are not immediately identifiable with McDonald’s. On the cover is a stylish colour photo of a restaurant exterior taken from an unusual angle, and the words “Every picture tells a story”. The brochure was created by Paper White. Consultancy marketing director Steven Page explains the effect he was going for: “From an opinion former’s point of view, we were trying to make them think ‘What on earth has that got to do with McDonald’s?’ and therefore make them read a little bit of why it is relevant to McDonald’s.”

The brochure encapsulates the almost schizophrenic attitude McDonald’s has to its own brand. On one hand, it is proud of its brand and designs because they are undoubtedly the most successful of their type in the world. On the other hand, McDonald’s is trying to disassociate itself from the core values that many commentators and consumers feel it defines. In this context, the company’s considerable efforts in its restaurant designs to deal sympathetically with its surroundings, illustrated by the relatively tasteful outlets in London’s Kensington and Hampstead, can be interpreted in two opposing ways.

One interpretation is that the golden arches are enough to identify the brand and, therefore, it is confident enough to dispense with the other parts of its normal frontage. The other is that it is trying to hide its brand from a society increasingly critical of the values it represents. It is a dilemma that is facing the industry as a whole, but McDonald’s most acutely. The success or otherwise of the McDonald’s brand will be a fascinating indicator of the ability of the fast-food sector to modernise its image in line with a more health conscious and environmentally sensitive consumer.

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