McDonald's New Look Reveals Company's Self-Loathing

Last Updated May 18, 2010 8:10 AM EDT

McDonald's (MCD) recently unveiled its first major store redesign in 30 years. The radically different new look reveals the desperate wish of the burger-giant's managers to be something other than the fast-food leader -- ideally, something more like Starbucks (SBUX). Franchise owners are already digging in their heels in opposition to the pricey remodels, for which they pay as much as $500,000 out-of-pocket.

The redesign is clearly aimed to blast McDonald's out of its fast-food past into a more upscale-positioned future, where it provides Wi-Fi to diners who sit on plush furniture. Gone are all things red, including the familiar red-plastic roof, in favor of a look that's all yellow and natural materials such as brick or stone. Change the yellow to forest green, squint your eyes a little, take in the Wi-Fi terminals and comfy chairs, and you've got Starbucks.

Almost gone are the legendary golden arches themselves, which have shrunk to just a couple of halfhearted partial arcs that appear to wobble above a now-flat roof -- a far cry from the original design in which thick arches looked like they held up the roof (as in the photo of founder Ray Kroc's original restaurant below). It's almost like company managers are embarrassed by their own iconic, internationally known symbol. The company's trademark arched-M logo is the small, defeated size it often sports in towns with strict signage limits. The company seems to be throwing in the towel on that battle.

McDonald's has missed an opportunity here to hearken back to its beginnings as a creator of fun eateries with a unique, easily recognizable style. With the new flat roof design, McDonald's could have easily recreated at least part of the original arches look seen at left. Instead, the design the company chose has all the uniqueness ironed right out of it.

Take off the "M," and it could be almost any strip-mall restaurant, selling anything from teriyaki to baked goods. That's a shame. McDonald's is the leader in its sector, with a history that defined chain restaurants in America -- where's the pride?

The new American restaurant look is inspired in part by redesign work the chain has done abroad with French interior designer Phillipe Avanzi. In Japan, some store exteriors resemble sleek wine bars more than fast-food restaurants. It's never a good sign when managers seem to want their restaurants to resemble something they're not.

Managers' timing in putting a steep capital-expenditure requirement on franchise owners just as they're crawling out of a prolonged downturn isn't great, either. About half the chain's 14,000 franchisees remodeled their stores just a few years ago, so they're understandably not hot to shell out mid-six figures to do it again so soon. Given how the new style diminishes McDonald's branding, they may also be worried about losing some of the look that made a McDonald's easy to spot from the outside.

That quick identification gets customers driving 60 mph to pull off the Interstate and stop in the restaurants. It doesn't appear that the new look will be as effective in accomplishing that critical job for franchise owners.

Photos courtesy of McDonald's

  • Carol Tice

    Carol Tice is a longtime business reporter whose work has appeared in Entrepreneur, The Seattle Times, and Nation's Restaurant News, among others. Online sites she's written for include and Yahoo!Hotjobs. She blogs about the business of writing at Make a Living Writing.