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Why McDonald’s Failed to One-Up Burger King’s Redesign

The fast-food giant’s revamped packaging shows it’s still too timid to fully adapt to the times

This is shaping up to be the year of the fast-food rebrand. First, Burger King unveiled a sharply executed redesign on January 7, announcing a total revamp across the entire brand, from its logo and packaging design to an updated digital and social media presence. It was an immediate smash hit, nodding back to the company’s classic 1969 logo while signaling the brand’s transition into a more digital-friendly brand. Less than a month later, on February 16, Burger King’s archrival McDonald’s followed suit and revealed a fresh new take on its product packaging. Much like its rival’s rebrand, which was a bold, retro, and colorful take on flat design, McDonald’s new packaging is… a bold, retro, and colorful take on flat design.

This isn’t mere coincidence or copycatism: Flat design is a trendy visual style that’s been adopted by brands like Apple, Instagram, and Netflix over the past decade. It embraces two-dimension illustrations, bright colors, and simplicity to limit the noise created by too many visual details. Gone are the bevels, shadows, or textures, replaced by simple vector-style graphics and reduced reliance on typography to convey the message. This minimalist approach delivers information more effectively by being less intrusive on the eye, perfect for the digital space where customers are increasingly found and won — including for fast-food giants like McDonald’s and Burger King, who are growing their app presence.

Created in tandem with brand design agency Pearlfisher, the McDonald’s packaging focuses on simplistic visual elements that pull out the most iconic elements of the chain’s menu, such as the Big Mac, Egg McMuffin, and the McFlurry. The concept aims to play on the positive emotions these products ideally invoke in McDonald’s customers. As Matt Sia, creative director at Pearlfisher, explained, “We aimed to find the most special, recognizable, and iconic expression of each — celebrating them in a way that makes people smile.”

As part of a wider strategic move for the company, Pearlfisher has made the packaging more connected and evocative of McDonald’s playful point-of-view — and it’s in stark contrast to the previous look. The “in your face” design of its most recent packaging, launched in 2016, emphasized big typography. While this packaging was successful, it failed to make each individual item recognizable, especially to those not familiar with McDonald’s product offerings. With the company estimating that the brand has over 60 million interactions with people every day across the globe, clarity is key, especially at such a scale. By switching the focus to visual elements, the redesign aims to fix that, ensuring a single and cohesive identity in every market that McDonald’s operates in, easily recognized by staff and customers alike.

Speaking to Adweek, Hamish Campbell, executive creative director at Pearlfisher, explained the thinking behind the change: “These days, consumers know what they want, which is why we wanted to shift McDonald’s packaging from being a vehicle for promotions, to being a coherent part of the brand experience.” It aims to feel reflective of the McDonald’s of today, which Campbell describes as “modern, fresh, and playful.”

Burger King’s rebrand was an example of how to successfully implement design trends while retaining the soul of your company.

While the redesign achieves some of these intentions, it isn’t enough, especially when its competitor Burger King has set the bar so high. McDonald’s needed to be less timid with its rebrand, because the company now finds itself with multiple styles in play, leaving many elements dissonant between its packaging, main logo, and overall brand.

If you can’t beat ’em, join ‘em

Immediately upon its release, McDonald’s new look received criticism from the design community. In an article in Switch, Elise Dalli argued that the rebrand fails the “swap test,” writing, “Swap out the McD logo for any other logo and there would be nothing to let an audience know that the packaging is McDonald’s packaging. This is a fundamental flaw in identity and packaging design.” Jeeves Williams, a freelance designer, went further, stating, “There’s nothing emotionally joyful here. It’s about as soullessly minimal and clinical as you can go. Bright colors and bold shapes aren’t always fun/joyful.”

Comparisons between McDonald’s and Burger King’s rebrands were inevitable, due to both the timing and the similarities in design choices and execution. It should be noted that McDonald’s and Pearlfisher first began working together in 2016, and while unfortunate, the short window between the launch of both revamps is unlikely to be indicative of mimicry. In a tweet, designer Andy Boothman noted some of the similarities: “When your biggest competitor just absolutely nailed a fun packaging update you simply have to respond. Burger King’s packaging has the edge — the retro, nostalgic feel makes this new McDonald’s range look second choice.” Others chose the side of McDonald’s, with one marketing consultant praising the work. “McDonald’s new packaging looks like a modern brand. Design is (literally) flattening. Feels like brand incumbent vs DTC disruptor competition has moved on to a new phase.”

Still, give credit where it’s due: Some of the elements of the new McDonald’s packaging are examples of design done well. The Egg McMuffin wrapper, now an entirely white paper with a yellowish circle in the middle, is instantly recognizable as an egg and perfectly executes the brief. But many of the other concepts are a little vague. The McFlurry design, while colorful, doesn’t shout ice cream so much as it looks like an imitation of the famous Coca-Cola white swirl. The Filet-O-Fish visuals use the sea as inspiration rather than an ingredient like other items’ packaging. While it’s aesthetically appealing, it dilutes the overall message. If the item names were removed from the packaging, many of the visual elements fail to help customers identify the product.

While the company was never going to update its logo — understandably so, with the golden arches being one of the most iconic logos on earth — it could have used this new visual language as a springboard for more significant changes elsewhere.

The outcome is a worthy attempt at jumping on the flat design trend and narrowly avoids being flat for flat’s sake. The visuals are fun, and they succeed at softening the brand’s aesthetic. But the overall impact also falls a little, um, flat, and there is no debating the winner of the rebrand wars. The main reason for Burger King making a bigger splash with its redesign is that it went for a full rebrand, from logo to packaging, signage, and staff uniforms, and it uses the new design elements to form the basis of its social media and online presence. Everywhere the customer interacts with the brand has been brought together under one banner, resulting in a cohesive and effective redesign. The company even introduced a custom, psychedelic font inspired by its menu items to distinguish the brand from competitors. Burger King used the process to refresh from top to bottom, aligning its brand with its customer base, changing business strategy, and transition to more digital forms, ready for the future of fast-food.

By only redesigning its packaging, McDonald’s has made no updates to the rest of the user experience, no redesign of the mobile app, or the website. Worse, the changes lack harmony with the overall brand, which McDonald’s is clearly unwilling to change at present. While the company was never going to update its logo — understandably so, with the golden arches being one of the most iconic logos on earth — it could have used this new visual language as a springboard for more significant changes elsewhere. As customer tastes and trends continue to change, with more emphasis and importance being placed on health, ethically sourced ingredients, and sustainable practices, McDonald’s could have signaled to its customers that it was listening and adapting. The company has alluded to further developments in the future, including redesigned stores (a great example is its flagship store in Chicago) and innovations in the way customers order, but by failing to coordinate this under one big launch, the new packaging is just that — new packaging.

While these rebrands can take months, if not years, to fully roll out across the entire brand, there have already been signs that Burger King is edging out its rival in the public vote. According to a survey carried out by The Harris Poll on behalf of Ad Age, 56% of consumers said Burger King’s new packaging made the food look more appetizing, and 54% said they preferred Burger King’s updated packaging over McDonald’s. The data shows the rebrands may also result in bigger gains for Burger King: 48% of consumers who preferred Burger King’s new design said they were more likely to buy its products, compared to 41% of those who preferred McDonald’s new look and felt more likely to buy its products. In a crowded market, where the big players fight for every last mouth, Burger King has won this round.

Editor-in-Chief of Post-Grad Survival Guide • Columnist in Marker • Thoughts on business, ideas, writing & more

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