Branding and a side of fries

On June 17, the Whitehorse McDonald's will reopen its doors to show off its new look. It's like one of those makeover shows - the moment where some pudgy person who hasn't changed their wardrobe since the '80s emerges from behind the curtain looking slim and classy.

On June 17, the Whitehorse McDonald’s will reopen its doors to show off its new look.

It’s like one of those makeover shows – the moment where some pudgy person who hasn’t changed their wardrobe since the ‘80s emerges from behind the curtain looking slim and classy, dressed in high European fashions.

But are they actually any different? Will their friends still like them? Will they be able to maintain their classy new look?

This stuff makes for great television, but is it good business?

This is the first major facelift for the fast-food franchise since it moved to its current location on Fourth Avenue in 1986.

“In the restaurant world that’s a long time,” said owner Mike Thorpe.

“We thought it was time for an update and a remodel.”

The renovation gives the McDonald’s a more cosmopolitan, European look – gone are the primary colours and focus on clowns.

Inside, there’s a new 42-square-metre playland with its own dedicated seating so that parents can enjoy their meal while keeping an eye on the kids.

But playlands have been a McDonald’s draw for a long time now.

What’s new is the launch of the McCafe product line.

Although it won’t be available right away – there’s still training to be done – Yukoners will soon be able to order lattes, cappuccinos, mochas and espressos.

The only difference from a Starbucks will be that you might be asked to make one more decision while ordering your customized caffeine concoction: Do you want fries with that?

Another way McDonald’s hopes to compete with Starbucks, as well as the rest of the many cafes in town, is with its new “lobby”- replete with comfy chairs, LCD TVs, WiFi access and even a fireplace.

And they’ll be competing with places like Tim Hortons in that drinks will be a little more affordable and available 24/7.

“I don’t really look at who I’m going to be competing with,” said Thorpe.

“I’m going to look at the products that I have to offer and who they would appeal to. And we’re going to be able to provide a specialty coffee experience, at a good value, 24 hours a day, seven days a week.”

McCafes have existed around the world for years now.

The trend started in Australia and spread through the cafe cultures of Europe.

North America joined the bandwagon in the past couple of years, said Thorpe.

“It’s a brand that has been around the world for a long time and we’re now working it into Canada.”

But McDonald’s, in its old Ronald McDonald form, has been around a lot longer.

Will this huge shift towards catering to latte-sipping yuppies lure new customers to the restaurant?

Or will the rebranding drive old customers away?

While it’s a little risky, the cafe might make a good fit for McDonald’s, said Al Aasman, a brand strategist for Aasman Brand Communications.

It’s not rebranding, it’s brand clarification, he said.

“Brands are often confused with logos or advertising,” he said.

“But a brand is actually what people think about you.”

Drawing on the wall with erasable markers on Thursday morning, Aasman taught a little Branding 101.

The way to think about a brand is to first simplify a company down to its essence – it’s not about what a company wants to be, it’s about what it already is.

And if you simplify McDonald’s down enough, stripping away the cheap burgers and fries, you’ll find that it’s really always been about one thing: Youth.

McDonald’s didn’t figure this out until 2006, when it launched its “Forever Young” brand by redesigning all of its restaurants.

It was the first major redesign since the 1970s.

Once you’ve figured out and clarified your brand, you need to communicate that to customers and refocus your business on that brand.

How do you do that?

Well – to briefly go back to business school – you need to align the “five Ps”- product, place, practices, promotion and people.

McDonald’s is trying to expand it’s idea of youth from 10-year-olds to young professionals in their 20s or 30s, said Aasman.

And, because specialty coffee has become the hippest thing since sliced hamburger buns, changing the McDonald’s product line to include coffee and healthier alternatives is a good start.

The playland and lounge area are great ways to make the place appeal to young people.

And the people working at the franchise have always been young, so there’s another check mark there.

As for practices and promotion it remains to be seen how McDonald’s will focus on its “Forever Young” brand in the Yukon.

But since embracing the concept of branding five-years ago, you can bet that the world’s largest chain of restaurants will have it figured out.

Expect some high-tech ordering systems and hip new ads in the near future.

McCafe beverages won’t be available right away. They’ll probably enter the menu in a month or so.

“The equipment will be on site, but because of our remote location we need the equipment to be up and running and on site to do proper staff training,” said Thorpe.

“The most complicated piece is going to be that interaction between the customer and the service person because people who typically like these beverages like them their own way – so we’re going to have to learn to speak that language.”

McCafe products will not be available at McDonald’s Walmart location for the time being, said Thorpe.

“We’re focusing on the main location on Fourth Avenue.”

Contact Chris Oke at

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