Brand consistency gives way to agility

For years, brands focused on standardization and replication. Ultimately, global brands wanted to ensure that no matter whether in Seattle, Shanghai, or Sydney, the consumer received a consistent experience— and for years this approach worked.

I myself remember exploring Guangzhou at the age of 20 and feeling huge relief when I saw McDonald’s golden arches. The iconic identity cut through the hustle and bustle of the streets, and literally created order where there was chaos. I knew that a familiar refuge was at hand with air conditioning, safe drinking water, a bathroom, and a Big Mac.

McDonald’s provides a fascinating example of a brand that has wrestled with the issues of consistency and agility.

Visionary brand DNA

As legend has it, coming out of the Great Depression and struggling to make a go of a movie theater, Dick and Mac McDonald noticed a hotdog stand with an endless supply of customers. Inspired by this, they opened their own stand before upgrading to a larger store. Eventually, they identified an opportunity to improve efficiency and profits by adopting cutting-edge practices from the mechanized automotive industry and applying them to flipping burgers.

Image of the oldest operating McDonald’s courtesy of Bryan Hong.

Displaying creative thinking, Dick and Mac developed an assembly line that improved the speed of food preparation and standardized their products. The McDonald brothers then became pioneers of retail franchising to grow the brand and create scale. Despite their vision, the brothers didn’t have the foresight to take the brand to the next level. In the end, Ray Kroc, a salesman who sold multimixers to the brothers, bought the entire business for a paltry amount and went on to build the McDonald’s business as we know it today.

Consistency powered but then handicapped the brand

Driven by the mantra of “quality, service, cleanliness, and value,” Kroc set about expanding the brand throughout the world. He placed emphasis on duplicating his tried and tested formula, even creating a Hamburger University to train staff to deliver the same quality burger every time.

For years, international customers were happy to step into a McDonald’s and experience a piece of American life. From the outside, the brand seemed untouchable, but then life on the outside started to change.

Toward the end of the 20th century, shifting health and sustainability agendas and a new interest in the provenance of food meant that attitudes about food evolved. The media, films, and books began to target the brand, questioning its approach to business.

In addition, big American brands became political symbols for the antiglobalization movement, and McDonald’s became the epitome of corporate capitalism and greed.

Suddenly, the unquestionably American McDonald’s experience that had been replicated across the globe felt out of step and dated. From a position of dominance, the brand needed to reassess its relevance. In response, the brand started to tap into its original, agile spirit. Consistency was replaced by innovation and adaptation.

Supersized agility

Responding to new consumer trends, the brand is showing signs of setting a new course. For example, McDonald’s Australia has opened the Corner in Sydney. Set up as a lab to test new and more adventurous menus, the Corner completely does away with McDonald’s branding, instead using décor that is more aligned with an independent café. The new format starts a conversation with consumers who do not want to be defined by the places that they visit.

Trying to capture the trend for customized foods, McDonald’s turned a complete 180 degrees and started to roll out Create Your Taste burgers at selected outlets. While the old favorites remain on the menu, consumers now have the chance to build their own burgers using touchscreens to make their selections.

This really is old and new McDonald’s coming together—modern-day food automation for the Facebook generation, a perfect blend of pioneering technology aligned with market demand.

The brand has also set the standard for using social media as a corporate brand communications platform. A global, mass-market brand is bound to attract criticism; McDonald’s has turned to the Internet to manage its responses quickly and decisively so that it controls the agenda.

Agility is the ability to stay relevant

McDonald’s is fighting hard to maintain relevance; the brand has had to look backwards to look to the future. Reconnecting with the entrepreneurial and visionary ethos that infused its early years, it is managing to align itself with the current branding ecosystem.

Today’s marketplace is hypercompetitive; customers are becoming more demanding. Markets are opening, but competition is increasing. And digital is creating a continued state of disruption—for brands today uncertainty is the only certainty.

Given the context, Landor believes that success today requires being nimble to risk and responsive to opportunity. We believe that to thrive, brands must be designed for change. Future-focused. Forward-facing. Ever-evolving. Great brands stand for something, and, like McDonald’s, they never stand still.

First published in the BrandLaureate.