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McDonald's Logo Branding

It's serious work being playful with design

By Giles Calver, planning director

March 17, 2016 | 5 min read

Consistency is the watchword of any brand design, but sometimes you just want to cut loose from the brand book and do something a bit more playful instead. McDonald's recent packaging refresh, implemented by Boxer, has had a mixed response, but in terms of loosening the reins the packaging still stays on brand. It’s an interesting example of how it can pay to be a bit more playful.

There are few symbols more globally recognised than the Golden Arches, and the new look for the brand certainly features them, but in a less corporate manner than we've become used to. A deconstructed approach has the McDonald's name split across three decks in a bold and bright typeface, while the Golden M wraps itself around cups and bags.

According to McDonald's, the move is to position itself as a modern and progressive burger company, and to effectively turn the packaging into 'in your face' mobile ads for McD's.

It is certainly a bold move. At a time when all brands want to stand out, reach out and engage, the temptation to adopt this playful approach is one that others might choose to ape. However, being playful doesn't mean throwing out design rigour, and it's not as simple as McDonald's makes it look.

For one thing, the fast food giant has a scale that makes it less risky. With 69 million customers a day, many of them young and adventurous, McDonald's is big enough to take the risk and to a certain extent, make it happen. Visibility is not an issue for it so the new look will not lack for exposure and will be quickly absorbed and accepted by customers.

Ubiquity also works for a brand like Google, which in achieving verb status, has become part of everyday language. This gives it remarkable freedom to play with its homepage through its Google Doodle programme. Google has given increasing free range over the years to the way its logo is used, to the extent that there appears little regard for such common design considerations as colour or font. Despite this, everybody still recognises it as Google, and the underlying message that the brand helps you discover and research is powerful.

For other brands, the fact that their identity is spread across a range of assets allows them greater latitude. Coca-Cola's ‘Share a Coke’ campaign replaced the brand name completely with hundreds of individual names. However, Coke could lean back on other elements of visual equity that consumers had a connection with and it could afford to drop the iconic Coke name because it had the instantly recognisable bottle, the swoosh and the Coke font itself.

Similarly Heineken has given over its packaging to large scale reinvention around its sponsorship of events like the Rugby World Cup and Champions League, as well as its partnership with the latest Bond film Spectre. In each case, the green bottle was sufficiently distinctive to shine through, and featured the brand's red star emblem if any reminder was required.

Then there are brands where the playfulness reflects the philosophy of the brand itself. Channel 4's latest rebrand has deconstructed the classic Lambie Nairn logo to an amazing degree. Produced by the channel’s in-house team, it reflects the idea that Channel 4 is more than a number and more than the sum of its parts, giving birth to a new and challenging approach while paying homage to the original. It works because the new approach is completely in the spirit of the channel's remit to be alternative, innovative, surprising and bold.

Playfulness in brand design doesn't mean dumbing down. Paul Rand's rebus logo for IBM (eye-bee-M) in 1981 remains a classic of the genre, but its lightness of touch is based on the fact that Rand had designed the original IBM logo in 1956, bringing a dusty old business into the computer age. He understood IBM intrinsically, and approached the task with the same rigour he brought to any project.

The rebus poster wasn't just Rand showing off his skills. It was designed to support an initiative promoting IBM’s motto of 'Think', something that it demonstrably did.

Like all great design it made a playful approach look easy. In reality it's anything but, and thinking of it simply as a bit of brand light relief could be disastrous to hard won brand equity.

Giles Calver is planning director at Sedley Place

McDonald's Logo Branding

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