11. Sonic Branding: An Introduction

In this week's extract of Sonic Branding: An Introduction, Daniel Jackson traces back to 1937, to the origins and launch of the McDonald's brand.


One brand, more than any other has shown us that trademarks and brands are different. This brand set the agenda for how we perceive brands today but it took 40 or more years for the lessons to filter through and even now, the branding industry is dominated by businesses that sell graphic design and trademarks ... but not for much longer. The brand that helped the world see that a name, design and trademark were just elements of a brand and not the essence of a brand was growing slowly and quietly at the same time and in the same place as Landor Associates. During the 1940s and 1950s, largely unknown to the marketing fraternity, a new, great brand was being born in the sunshine state of California. It too rode the economic boom of the post—war years but it and a few contemporaries were to set a new agenda for creating and defining brands. .

McDonald’s was founded by Richard and Maurice McDonald (no Ronald?) in 1937. Originally, they had escaped the Depression and the east, looking for gold in the movie business. Their talents as set builders allowed them to save the money needed to build a cinema but when that failed they turned their hands to making ‘McDonald’s Famous Burgers ‘. They opened a drive—in restaurant, the kind you might be familiar with from watching Happy Days or the opening titles to the classic Flintstones cartoons.

Kids in southern California loved to hang out at drive-ins. Here they were served cheap food late into the night by ‘car hops , usually pretty girls in short skirts. The McDonald Brothers’ Burger Bar Drive—In was the right business in the right place at the right time. California was flooded with investment from the federal government of the US, had the kind of year-round climate that was ideally suited to ‘hanging out’ and had an abundance of kids with cars and cash.

The McDonald brothers’ success was considerable but nevertheless, they became disillusioned with the drive—in restaurant they had founded. There seemed to be too much bother serving customers in their cars, too much hassle finding short—order cooks and too many broken glasses to be replaced every night. So, they changed the way they did business. Though what they did owes much to the factory assembly line, I believe that their background in entertainment had an effect on the way they did it.

In short, they invented McDonald’s as we know it, They pared the menu down to foods eaten without a knife and fork; they brought in the division of labour in preparation (one person for the burgers, one for the fires and so on); and they served everything in paper rather than on a plate or in a glass. They also decided to stop employing car hops, much to the disappointment no doubt, of every red-blooded teenage boy.

The next thing they did was also genius but incredibly simple. They decided they needed a new building for the restaurant. This one had to be visible from far away, so Richard McDonald designed it to have two neon-lit arches on its roof that looked like an M when viewed from a distance. With no training as a designer or architect, the Hollywood set—building brothers created an enduring theatre of hamburgers and possibly the most loved and reviled logo in the world.

That was not all, however, because they then introduced the Speedee Service System — a way for the staff to behave that described exactly what was expected of them. This became the value set for the whole company. They recruited staff to support their vision. They wanted a family clientele and experience told them that employing young female staff would mainly attract young men so rather than become a teen hangout, they only employed young men. In their total innovation of the restaurant concept, McDonald’s effectively laid a blueprint for brands for the next half—century. They had a good name, they developed a great logo, serendipitously, some ten years after they set up, they recruited to support their ideas and they trained their staff to believe in the Speedee Service values.

These principles were copied, very quickly, by a huge number of competitors all over the US. The ideas and inspiration that took the brothers a lifetime to develop were copied by other people all over the nation but the McDonald brothers were not one—trick ponies. What continued to place McDonald’s at the forefront of their industry was their belief in delivering a consistent product and service. They achieved this by implementing a rigorous regime, specifying the nature and method behind every burger, bun and soft drink. Everything about the restaurants was metred precisely, ensuring that the customer always got what the menu promised. More to the point, every customer got exactly what they expected and that was the key to building trust.

The food was not all that was specified. The architecture style that was introduced in the first restaurant was used as a pattern for subsequent restaurants and the lucky logo became a beacon to low—income families all over the country that had not been catered for previously by restaurants.

The interiors, too, were specified according to the brothers’ exacting standards, but there was usually some design cue reserved for the location of the restaurant. If you think that the idea of global/local is new then just look at the range of McDonald’s restaurant interiors world-wide. McDonald’s had consistent food, architecture and staff. They all supported the value set of Speedee Service. Furthermore, McDonald’s had its own in—store music programme. It had uniform lighting, heating, flooring and just about everything else. As a result of its vast success throughout the late twentieth century, it has become a model for how brands behave today. In fact, the McDonald’s model is the one adhered to by most of today’s branding experts.

McDonald’s was the first company to view the entire brand experience. Brand experience has become a buzz around the industry in the last two years. It refers to a brand philosophy prescribing that every time a customer comes into contact with a brand, no matter what the channel, the experience should be consistent with the central belief of the brand. Consistency increases the probability of reaching target customers effectively.

It took the industry a long time to catch on to this view; in the meantime McDonald’s has come to dominate the world of fast food. The secrets are now visible, however, exposed in Fast Food Nation, by E. Schlosser. Perhaps the most interesting revelation in that best—seller is a point that is easy to miss. In a quote from a McDonald’s communications strategy meeting the following objective was identified. McDonald’s wanted to ‘make the customers believe that McDonald’s [was] their “Trusted Friend” ’.

Daniel Jackson, CEO - CORD