Brand Transformation: More Than Just A Paint Job


I escaped to glorious, otherworldly, reinvigorating Devon last week. As we drove down the motorway, then the infinite A303, passing the eternal Stonehenge and eventually onto dusky country lanes edged with looming century-old hedges, I felt my city-self slip away, to be replaced by a much calmer, more patient and joyful version of me.

But mine was not the only transformation I was to experience that week.

I stumbled into the first somewhere near the Neolithic stones, at that modern temple of consumption, Maccy D’s. Now I haven’t actually passed through the golden arches myself since the end of the last century, but here I was, on the A303, in desperate need of petrol and a cuppa: it was time to sample McDonald’s 2015.

It was hardly country living, but the green hues and faux mahogany interior was a world away from the red and yellow Formica scene presided over by Ronald McDonald back in the day. Children’s drawing pads and pens were provided and the charming free ‘Boov’ toy from the latest Dreamworks production made me want to buy a happy meal then and there to kick off my collection.

To the casual observer it feels like McDonald’s has been creeping towards this new version of itself over the last decade or so – in fact I now remember the McDonald’s restaurant at the 2012 Olympics looked positively cool, but according to McDonald’s themselves it is just now, at the beginning of 2015, that they have launched a ‘massive brand transformation’.

According to their Chief Marketing Officer, ‘relentless consumer focus’ is the new mantra. And they are already responding to customer demands by serving healthier meals, as evidenced by the presence of fresh fruit in Happy Meals amongst other things. Really? Please someone tell me that they have in fact been doing that for some time?

US restaurants have also introduced the quite hilarious (IMO) following changes:

  • Darker, edgier Hamburglar wearing Guy Fawkes mask (petrifying)
  • Each customer to receive “Meal In Review” video highlighting important events that took place during their visit (what can these important events possibly be? I am on the edge of my seat)
  • Switching signature red from Pantone 485 C to much more contemporary 185 C (absolutely)
  • Ball pits now filled with trendy mason jars (is it me or does that sound like a health and safety no no?)

What could possibly go wrong?

Anyway, once finally in Devon, I was transported into a more distant past; of restless childhood days out, being dragged around dusty old buildings filled with large, dark paintings of grumpy men and expressionless women. Ahh, The National Trust. When I were a young’un, it used to send a shudder of pure boredom down my spine. And here I was, a ‘number’ of years on veritably skipping through its turnstiles to spend a day at the immeasurably beautiful seaside idyll of Coleton Fishacre. It looks better than it sounds I can assure you.

And when I tell you it was owned by the ‘Simon Cowell’ character behind Gilbert & Sullivan, you will begin to get an idea. At least that’s how the rather charming NT volunteer described it. That felt like a small transformation/minor miracle in itself, as I remember when those NT room guardians looked like they would rather cut off your toes for accidentally straying under the red rope (OK, a bit on purpose) before they would talk to you in a human and non-patronising manner. In NT 2015, not only are you made to feel welcome in these spectacular pieces of our history, you are even invited to enjoy them. At Coleton Fishacre they have a ‘handling room’ where children are actually encouraged to touch and try on the old clothes, jewellery, hats and marvel at the undergarments of yesteryear. My only mistake was to go into the ‘handling room’ first, before the ‘non-handling rooms’ which made it quite difficult to control my two year old.

But the National Trust is brilliantly set up for kids now. They even target them with ‘50 things to do before you’re 11 & ¾.’ Not sure we’ve yet managed all 50, but I with my junior crew I’ve been on orienteering trails, had hours of fun in natural playgrounds, made Easter hats, bivouacs, taken part in hobby-horse racing and egg and spoon racing. And then we’ve replenished energy supplies with proper coffee and delicious home made cake. Each time it’s made a brilliant day out and the kids have had no inkling that they were meant to have dragged their heels, hated every minute and declared that the next day they got to choose what we did (Like go to McDonalds and hang out with the mason jars and Boovs in the ball pit?). They thought we were actually there for them!

It is interesting to see how these two historic brands have managed to stealthily undergo such a dramatic transformation, and for me it is about the depth and breadth of the changes they have made to make the citizens of 2015 feel welcome in their establishments.

Brands commonly have to tackle ‘misconceptions’ or an absence of understanding, but McDonald’s and the National Trust faced a much tougher challenge. They had to challenge negative perceptions born of actual experience, over years, even decades. To do this they required an almost cellular level of transformation. Any area left untransformed could evoke unpleasant memories of the brands’ misspent past and topple the whole carefully-stacked house of cards. This is not something that can happen quickly, but in my book it is something that these two unlikely bedfellows have done rather well.

Kath Hipwell, Head of Content Strategy, Creative