McDonald's Packaging Gets a Colorful Makeover

Passionate Purple, Optimistic Orange and Magical Magenta Among the Hues in 'Modern, Progressive' Packaging

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McDonald's 2016
McDonald's 2016 Credit: McDonald's

Steve Easterbrook is pushing McDonald's to be a modern, progressive burger company. Now the CEO has the packaging to match.

McDonald's is overhauling its bags and cups with bright lettering and an updated take on its iconic Golden Arches. It is the chain's first global packaging overhaul in three years and perhaps the first to come with a long, international list of people to thank.

Matt Biespiel, McDonald's senior director-global brand development, gives credit for what he calls the new "DynamicDesign" to a team that included designers from seven agencies. That's because nearly a year ago McDonald's plucked one designer from each of its lead agency partners, sent them to London's Shoreditch neighborhood, and had them brainstorm for a week.

The brief for the meeting, Mr. Biespiel said, essentially was to come up with packaging designs that would be true, bold and simple and work with McDonald's updated designs in its restaurants and other areas such as its digital push.

The overhaul has been in the works since the fall of 2014. Back then, McDonald's was stuck in a string of sales declines and Mr. Easterbrook was still in the role of global chief brand officer. McDonald's marketing leadership, which included Mr. Easterbrook, began discussing how they could make the packaging more exciting. After all, it is something millions of customers see and touch every day. It was time for McDonald's to have a new "billboard for the brand," as Mr. Biespiel calls it.

The team assembled in London in early 2015 included designers from Leo Burnett Germany; TBWA U.S.; DDB Hong Kong; Creata Australia; Boxer UK; Landini Australia and Forpeople UK.

They got consumer feedback on the ideas mid-week, tweaked them, and by the end of the week three finalists emerged. After that, McDonald's longtime packaging agency Boxer worked on perfecting the winning design, which features bold lettering, the Golden Arches logo and the "i'm lovin' it" slogan.

Now, as CEO, Mr. Easterbrook is leading the early stages of a turnaround and often speaks about his desire to make McDonald's into "a modern, progressive burger company." In turn, Mr. Biespiel describes the updated packaging as "really looking and feeling modern, feeling progressive."

"It's hard to say who gets the credit for the actual design because everyone had a hand in shaping the thinking," Mr. Biespiel said.

The new look is starting to pop up in the U.S. before heading around the globe. The designs feature colors that almost sound like the names of new McDonald's smoothies or fancy burgers: Passionate Purple, Optimistic Orange, Ocean Fresh Blue, Zesty Lime and Magical Magenta. Of course, McDonald's signature red and yellow also appear.

The quantitative and qualitative feedback from consumers showed "how much our consumers wanted McDonald's to be McDonald's," Mr. Biespiel said. Some attempts that really pushed the design envelope perhaps pushed the brand further than customers were comfortable with. Also, "they really liked the designs that leaned into our core assets and icons," he said. That's one of the reasons the company decided "to make the Golden Arches so dynamic."

For example, the front of one bag features the golden arches, which stretch to the adjoining side panel. The other large side of the bag might include the name of a top-seller such as Big Mac, Chicken McNuggets, Egg McMuffin or French Fries, in a bright hue.

It's a big shift from some of the chain's earlier packaging. From 1955 to 1961, bags, cups and wrappers featured an icon named Speedee to represent the "Speedee Service System" cooked up by the McDonald brothers. "He was on our packaging and signage," recalls McDonald's archivist Mike Bullington.

"Our packaging changed to reflect contemporary times and the needs of our customers," said Mr. Bullington, reflecting on various designs as well as the use of different packaging materials to help ensure the food was served hot and fresh.

In the 1960s, the logo evolved to the Golden Arches with a slash running through them. The 1970s brought the word McDonald's into the image of the arches. Styrofoam packaging from the 1980s gave way to paper and boxes in the early 1990s.

The updated packaging coincides with the 25th anniversary of McDonald's doing away with styrofoam "clamshell" containers. It still aims for all of its fiber-based packaging to come from recycled or certified sustainable sources by 2020. By the end of 2014, McDonald's U.S. was sourcing about 27% of its fiber-based packaging from such sources.

While the environmental impact of the new bags has not been publicly disclosed, in some cases, the overhaul means less of the bag is printed with ink, compared to the prior "Brand Ambition" design that focused on McDonald's people, food and community. The brand will continue the use of brown paper, which includes post-consumer recycled content.

Mr. Bullington enjoys coming across packaging for long-gone products, such as the Deep Sea Dory fish nuggets and sauce from the early 1960s. One of his favorite packaging items is the red Big Mac box from the 1970s. "I can recall having my first Big Mac, and it was out of that package," the archivist said. "Everyone has a nostalgic look at the packaging that they grew up with."

See McDonald's packaging evolution here:

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1955-1961. Credit: McDonald's.
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1961-1968. Credit: McDonald's.
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1970's. Credit: McDonald's.
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1983-1990. Credit: McDonald's.
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1990-1993. Credit: McDonald's.
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1993-1995. Credit: McDonald's.
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1995-2003. Credit: McDonald's.
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2003-2008. Credit: McDonald's.
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2008-2013. Credit: McDonald's.
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2013-2015. Credit: McDonald's.
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2016. Credit: McDonald's.
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