Over the next two years, McDonald’s will roll out its new packaging to 13,900 ‘restaurants’ in the US and thereafter to another 117 countries worldwide. But will it ‘change the way the world feels about eating McDonald’s food’?
That, apparently, was what Birmingham-based design studio Boxer was asked to do when McDonald’s commissioned it for the mammoth project (Business Week has a great story detailing all the thinking behind the strategy and quotes from both the client and Boxer).
Not only are the packaging changes interesting from a stylistic point of view, but, perhaps more pertinent is the way in which they make visual the changing debate around fast foods and McDonald’s attempts to address its many critics.
First in terms of materials. From 1976 all the way until 1991, the burgers still came in brightly coloured foam boxes. As the environmentalist debate begins to kick in, McD’s switches to paper and board, the visual language becomes more restrained, less overtly ‘trashy’. Now, it says, all its bags, tray liners and cup carriers are made from 100 per cent recycled paper while packaging for hot foods is made from 72 per cent recycled paper.
The new packaging takes on another major area of criticism – the content of its food. So, for example, in the new design the box for a Big Mac is adorned with clean photographs of the fresh ingredients inside – a mound of ‘100% pure beef’ sits atop scales. There’s a real onion and a real lettuce. This is packaging as advertising in a very explicit form, campaigning heavily to convince the customer that this stuff is made from real things.
On its website, Boxer claims that “the new packaging engages in an honest conversation with consumers about the quality of McDonald’s food”. But how ‘honest’ is this conversation? As the brand’s many critics will no doubt point out, if we’re going to be ‘honest’ about what’s in the food, that pile of meat could, for example, be replaced by one of fat or salt, both heavily present in McDonald’s foods (one Big Mac contains 42% of your recommended daily intake of salt, for example).
Nevertheless, compared to the lurid cartons of yore, this is clearly a company that has shifted its communications in an attempt to address its critics and to be more transparent about what you might find inside – up to a point.
Another interesting change is in the language used. The new packs are another example of what we might term (albeit awkwardly) the ‘M&S-isation’ of copywriting on food packaging. Newell & Sorrell, as was, introduced salivating language to Marks & Spencer packaging in the 90s. Now McDonald’s talks about how “sear-sizzled 100% beef mingles with the sauce”. (I also have a pedantic quibble about the packaging. It asks ‘What makes your Big Mac so unique?’ It’s either unique or it isn’t, it can’t be ‘so unique’.)
But will all this change how you feel about eating the stuff? The issues with McDonald’s go much further and deeper than the quality of its beef or the paper used in its wrappers. Unlike packaging on the shelf in a supermarket, by the time a McDonald’s box has arrived in someone’s hands, they have already bought it. You would have to assume that whoever is holding the box has already set aside their concerns about the food. Isn’t it a bit redundant to start trying to convince them about the quality of the lettuce now?