History of the World in 52 packs | 26. McDonald’s

Iconic branding and packaging is a huge part of the McDonalds’ experience. Sun Branding Solutions’ Gillian Garside-Wight examines its inexorable rise


The French may still take two hours for lunch, but for many of us it is now a moveable, and a mobile feast. We take fast food packaging for granted, but before it became a norm, eating was a much more sedentary pursuit.

As the largest quick service restaurant (QSR) chain in the world, McDonald’s has helped revolutionise the way that we eat on the go. It serves 3.5 million meals a day in the UK alone, and with no reusable crockery or cutlery, smart packaging plays an important role.

From the early days when burgers arrived in greased paper wraps to prevent customers from staining their clothes with food, to today’s complex cardboard engineering, the company has always looked to innovate.

The Happy Meal was introduced in 1977 after an executive worked out that eating for adult customers was more enjoyable if their children also enjoyed the experience. It developed a children’s menu served in a playful cardboard lunchbox – the first TV commercial marketed it as ‘food and fun in a box’. Noticing how children read breakfast cereal boxes, McDonald’s made the Happy Meal box part of the entertainment with puzzles, stories and colouring in panels.


Each meal came with a ‘prize’ as an intrinsic part of the package. The first meals featured such cheap items as stencils, puzzles and erasers. They have become progressively more elaborate, often tying in with film launches.

Recent years have seen further developments, such as packaging which was used to play augmented reality (AR) games during the 2014 World Cup. The company also developed the Bagtray, a carrier that becomes a tray by tearing a serrated strip. It has even commandeered the McBike, a cardboard carrier that holds a burger, fries and drinks and hangs from the handlebars of a bike.

And this week, it unveiled new pack branding with an overhaul of its bags and cups with bright lettering and an updated take on its iconic Golden Arches. It is the chain’s first global packaging overhaul in three years and is based on the result of a week-long brainstorm from a team made up of designers from seven of its lead agencies.

Overall the company aims to use as little packaging as possible, and has gradually increased the level of recycled material it uses and recycling it carries out. More and more, consumers are expressing an instinctive aversion to excess packaging and McDonald’s are responding well to this growing sentiment. Customers expect packaging to fulfil its primary protective function, but not at the expense of unnecessarily wasted material.

Ultimately we have a greater sensitivity to sustainable packaging and the warm, self-gratifying feeling using it generates. By 2020 McDonald’s hopes that the majority of its packaging will be 100% sustainable, renewable and recyclable. Whatever you think of the food, you have to applaud McDonald’s packaging savvy.

Gillian Garside-Wight, packaging technology director, Sun Branding Solutions

Gillian Garside-Wight, packaging technology director, Sun Branding Solutions

Leave a Reply