Traditionally brands have followed the path of consistency, across product, communications and experience. As times change, ‘agility’ should be the watchword that drives brands and business.
For years, brands focused on standardisation 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 twenty 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 hot dog stand with an endless supply of customers. Inspired by this they opened their own stand, before upgrading to a larger store. Eventually they identified that there was an opportunity to improve efficiency and profits by adopting cutting edge practices from the mechanised automotive industry, and applying them to flipping burgers.
Displaying creative thinking, they created 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 in to a McDonald’s and experience a piece of American life, from the outside the brand seemed untouchable, but life on the outside started to change.
Shifting health and sustainability agendas, and a new interest in the provenance of food meant that attitudes to food evolved. The media began to target the brand, films and books started to appear, questioning the brand and its approach to business.
In addition, big US brands became political symbols, for the anti globalization movement, McDonald’s became the epitome of corporate capitalism and a metaphor for 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 in to its original, agile spirit. Consistency was replaced by innovation and adaptation.
Super sized agility
Responding to new consumer trends the brand is showing signs of setting a new course. 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 new 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 has turned a complete 180 degrees and started to roll out its “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 touch screens to make their selections.
This really is old and new McDonald’s coming together, or 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 their response, quickly and decisively so that they control 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 their early years, they are managing to align themselves with the current branding ecosystem.
Today’s market place is hyper competitive, customers are evolving but becoming more complicated and 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.
Dominic Twyford is the former Country Director of Landor Associates Malaysia