The Bracknell branch of KFC featuring the brand's “informal and stylish” new interior

Fast food and authenticity: who wins?

‘Authenticity’ is the new byword in design for fast food brands as the giants of the sector face up to the threat of new challengers such as Byron, Five Guys and Shake Shack. But, suggests Silas Amos, some of these ‘cooler’ alternatives may be just as contrived as their bigger brothers, whose future lies in simply being themselves

The queues seeking the ‘heaven in a brown bag’ of a Five Guys burger frequently stretch out through the doors of its Covent Garden franchise and away up the street. Meanwhile, over in Canada, KFC recently launched its Memory Bucket of chicken. A limited edition of the brand’s famous chicken receptacle, given away via Facebook, the bucket incorporates a Bluetooth photo printer that can be paired to your phone, and prints out selfies of you enjoying your meal. Does this particular artefact mark the point when western civilization enters terminal decline? It certainly seems a world away from the more ‘soulful’ back to basics approach of new fast food pretenders like Five Guys.

Such alternative outlets are presenting a genuine challenge to the big guys. McDonald’s, Burger King and KFC have duly introduced more ‘authentic’ interiors and packaging in response, but is this a position they can ever convincingly adopt? And in design terms, what is ‘authenticity’ anyway?

2.-KFC-Bracknell-Temp_3612-1002x727
KFC’s Bracknell branch featuring its “informal and stylish” new interior design, created in-house with R&R and Finch Interiors
Byron hoarding illustrated by Jean Jullien at Manchester's Piccadilly. Design and image: Charlie Smith Design, charliesmithdesign.com
Byron hoarding illustrated by Jean Jullien at Manchester’s Piccadilly. Design and image: Charlie Smith Design, charliesmithdesign.com

According to the OED, authenticity means “of undisputed origin”. But in design it’s really more of a vibe. Why do we perceive the likes of Byron, Five Guys and Shake Shack as cooler? In Byron’s case the eclectic identity, table service, menu, pricing and craft beer all add up to something that feels ‘a cut above’. Its chatty copy, down-home graphics and retro furnishings mark it out as quintessentially ‘now’.

Shake Shack identity by Paula Scher at Pentagram NY
Shake Shack identity by Paula Scher at Pentagram NY
Shake Shack packaging designed by Paula Scher and team at Pentagram NY
Shake Shack packaging designed by Paula Scher and team at Pentagram NY
Shake Shack at Washington, D.C. Graphic design: Pentagram NY. Architect: SITE
Shake Shack at Washington, D.C. Graphic design: Pentagram NY. Architect: SITE

Over at Shake Shack the design is more contemporary but simple and relatively understated. Five Guys’ stripped-down, almost ‘anti-design’ identity suggests they focus on ‘real burgers’ over marketing sophistication. Its interior might bring to mind a Wimpy of 70s vintage but the open, visible ‘kitchen’ and the bags of spuds stored front of house (supported by handwritten signs saying where ‘today’s potatoes’ were sourced) all feel less synthetic than the more processed experience of a typical fast food giant.

Five Guys UK interior by Blacksheep, blacksheep.uk.com
Five Guys UK interior by Blacksheep, blacksheep.uk.com

What all these and many other new offers share is a shift from the glossy whizz-lines and graphic flimflam of stereotypical fast food design language to something more pared-back and charismatic. Basic just looks less plastic and less try-hard. It’s also the graphical trend of our era.

If you can get past its title, “The Organisational Construction of Authenticity: An examination of contemporary food and dining in the US” (by Glenn R Caroll and Dennis Ray Wheaton) offers an insightful labelling of two broad types of authenticity. Firstly there is ‘type authenticity’ (being true to your genre, and made the appropriate way). We get this from Five Guys’ preparation ‘theatre’. Then there is ‘moral authenticity’ (where brand behaviour reflects sincere choices). They list visual idiosyncrasy as a manifestation of this moral authenticity – a box Byron ticks with its mix and match design.

Caroll and Wheaton’s paper goes on to analyse just how much supposed authenticity is of course artifice. We all know this, and as consumers we are complicit in the fantasy. It’s why we prefer the idea of Bob Dylan to Robert Zimmerman, or (mostly) choose to ignore suggestions that Lana Del Rey’s stage name was chosen by her management, or that her privileged upbringing was lightly airbrushed out the better to portray her as the gangster Nancy Sinatra. Because, who cares? We like the legends, not the facts. As in music, so in the branding of fast food, where ‘authentic’ is really just design shorthand for not ‘big and bland’ – design that’s a little bit quirky, and well put together. It entertains us, and flatters us into believing we are hip enough to choose something just that little bit ‘alternative’. We tend to view small brands as naturally closer to craft and authenticity than big. They get to play the artisan card forfeited once a business becomes a global powerhouse. For now the new pretenders have the charisma of “never letting their supply outstrip their demand”, as Tom Waits puts it.

It’s not just in fast food that we are seeing the challenge the Davids present to Goliaths. Microbrewery beers represent an army of ants who are marching forward whilst the beer superbrands are generally seeing their sales decline. Boutique spirits likewise present a perception challenge for major distillers (see p50). But as the CEO of Pernod Ricard noted, “I’m struggling with the definition of craft spirits. Does it have to mean small? Or an entrepreneur with a pot-still in his garage?”

He makes a good point. Head distillers at major spirits brands don’t get there by accident, but as the result of a lifetime’s work. They inherit expertise that has been built up over generations, and the best facilities money can buy. What makes this any less authentic than something made by a couple of hipsters selling their story via an ersatz Edwardian apothecary label?

So to return to the question, can the ubiquitous and systemised fast food giants ever pull off ‘authentic cool’ through redesign? My view is yes they can, to a degree.

KFC packaging by Grand Army, grand-army.com
KFC packaging by Grand Army, grand-army.com
KFC identity by Grand Army, grand-army.com
KFC identity by Grand Army, grand-army.com

NY-based agency Grand Army has redesigned the identity for KFC at the same time that Wieden + Kennedy has built a campaign around the Colonel returning, with his anachronistic but ‘authentic’ take on the modern world. Basically the design has stripped back, flattened the colours and re-introduced the stripes of the original packaging. In doing so it has achieved a look at once more contemporary and yet also vintage – ‘cooler’, even. The revamp boldly draws on authentic roots, and feels much more charismatic than the overly fussy and forgettable design it replaced.

Turner Duckworth kicked off this form of stripped, back to basics approach in earnest with its influential 2005 redesign for Coca-Cola. If you want a brand to look like a ‘modern classic’, this is the current template to follow. So it’s admirable that the studio’s Burger King redesign does not lazily play the same trick twice. Instead the BK design strategy flows from the fact that one can customise a BK burger ‘your way’, and “all the packaging has a hand-printed effect reminiscent of the marks on the burgers made by flame grilling imperfect perfection”, according to the brand.

Burger King packaging by Turner Duckworth
Burger King packaging by Turner Duckworth

Does the resultant screenprint-esque design feel ‘authentic’? Personally I think a brand of this scale printing distressed type and suchlike to convey “perfect imperfection” is a bit of a reach. But it does look like a confident brand now, where BK’s design had lacked anything particularly ownable or distinctive for years. Will the new look convert a Five Guys devotee? Probably not, but I doubt that was the objective. Design for brands of this scale involves creating a system that works across complex menus and logistics. The revamp delivers this whilst nevertheless feeling a bit looser and less formulaic. The fries pack licking its lips, or the ‘wake up’ coffee packaging now has more style and wit than what preceded it.

And what of McDonald’s, the ultimate fast food leviathan? As one might expect of such a huge franchise with multiple agencies, McDonald’s’ image is more schizophrenic (and thus less ‘authentic’) than a relatively small pretender. Online one can find examples of new packaging that (once again) follows the minimal style du jour (see our post on the 2016 packaging here). But on my high street the boxes look as dated and fussy as ever. Printing a photo of the McNuggets one has just ordered on the lid of the box you get served doesn’t only seem redundant; it feels the opposite of single-minded and cool. Giving the Hamburglar a ‘sexy’ makeover wasn’t going to win it any cool points either. Conversely the fantastic poster advertising in France is a great example of a big brand being confidently itself, making the point that its products are ‘iconic’ (or at least distinctive) without the need for a logo.

McDonald's France poster by TBWA Paris
McDonald’s France poster by TBWA Paris
McDonald's 2013 packaging with QR codes
McDonald’s 2013 packaging with QR codes
McDonald's new packaging range. Image courtesy McDonald's
McDonald’s new packaging range. Image courtesy McDonald’s

McDonald’s’ 2013 global packaging redesign certainly played with the ‘chatty’ visual look, complete with QR code links to product information. Unlike the simpler poster campaign it felt more visually generic than something the brand really owns. However, the addition of a ‘signature collection’ of burgers at some outlets (selling for north of £4.50) suggests that McDonald’s is addressing its competition from the product out, rather than the packaging in.

KFC, McDonald’s and Burger King aren’t Byron, and no amount of Arne Jacobsen style chairs or distressed typography is going to make them hip. But I’m not convinced this is their sole focus – I think they are doing a pretty good job of being themselves. Such brands regularly refresh their look, and the simple flat style currently being adopted is just a contemporary change of clothes, true to the giants’ design origins, and also practical for the kind of substrates and formats they work across. As fast food they already have ‘type authenticity’ – they pretty much created the category, and they are all doing a good job of using their iconography in a more contemporary and agile manner that keeps them feeling relevant for their audience.

As for moral authenticity, it’s not a sentiment frequently associated with the category. The health concerns around fast food are a real problem shared by the giants and pretenders alike. Perhaps it sounds cynical but in design, as in music, culture or politics, ‘authenticity’ is mostly a trick. Right now that means the illusion of a little wonky hand-made simplicity. I’m not sure that Five Guys putting big bags of spuds in the middle of a restaurant is any less disingenuous than the artfully distressed type on a superbrand’s brown paper bag. Which is to say everybody is serving up a little fantasy in one way or another. And really successful design will always have to follow the adage ‘this above all: to thine own self be true’. Without that, all you have is style, not authenticity. What the Goliaths have is heritage and the advantage of globally famous iconography to play with. At their best, this is the card they are playing.

And as for those queues outside Five Guys? A drop in the ocean compared to the huge lines generated by the giants at millions of counters around the world. The Goliaths’ enduring popularity suggests they must be doing something right for a great many people. It’s a case of horses for courses, if that’s not an unappetising expression to conclude a piece on fast food design.

Silas Amos is a design strategist and creative director.

Illustration: David Sparshott

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