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Architecture + Branding: McDonald’s disowns the roof and serves up a new image

1-Mansard memories

McDonald’s. As a child, the name alone conjured up excitement and anticipation. Instantly, that well-known image of McDonald’s came to mind. Before I could even known what a double-sloped Mansard roof was, there it was, filling my thought stream like a fixture attached to the word.

 Back then, McDonald’s seemed easier to comprehend, Big Macs, burgers, fries, soft drinks, ice cream and Happy Meals. And, a McDonald’s looked like a McDonald’s.

Route 57 at Longbranch, Liverpool, NY

Lake Park, Florida

Central Square, NY

No matter where one might have ventured, far and wide, from a distance at highway speeds in the middle of the night, one could instantly recognize that McDonald’s of late.

Ashland, VA

Savannah, GA

Through menu changes, economic ebbs and flows, wars, recessions, the design persevered, proliferated and became emblematic of the brand, effectively elevating the double-sloped Mansard to iconic status. But alas, all good things must come to an end.

Stittsville Main Street, Stittsville, Ontario

2-Disowning the roof

Initially introduced in the 1960’s, the double-sloped Mansard roof quickly gained acceptance and spread rapidly across McDonald’s stores as the brand experienced rapid growth. Over the five decades that followed, McDonald’s managed to establish the red double-sloped Mansard roof as its calling card, successfully defining the roof as its own. Anecdotal stories abound of former McDonald’s restaurant sites being stripped of their signature roof prior to them being sold, all in an attempt to protect the value of this exclusive Architectural Identity. For several generations, the double-sloped Mansard roof was symbiotic to the McDonald’s brand, as very few other buildings styles or elements are more intertwined with their brand than the “McDonald’s roof”.

Understandably, the marketplace changes and perhaps to sole constant in the Quick Service Restaurant (QSR) industry is change. In fact, few of the previous store designs, featuring arches serving as book ends, framing either side of the walk-up counter, with the roof seemingly suspended in mid-air, remain in existence.

McDonald’s, circa 1950’s (source: McDonalds.com)

And once more, as McDonald’s attempts to recast in consumers minds what the brand can be, and where it can go into the future, it is disowning the double-sloped Mansard roof which it once vigouously protected.

3-New menu = New look

It would not be the first time that McDonald’s reinvents itself, tweaks the menu, or alters its look. Comprising a vast portfolio of stores that do not adhere to the standard model, in part due to the desire to be in densely populated urban areas, or in response to local zoning regulation, urban guidelines or local sensibilities and history, McDonald’s has a long tradition of experimentation, alterations, and localization.  

Lauderdale-by-the-sea, Florida

Sherbrooke near Decarie, Montreal, Quebec

Rue Sainte Catherine, Montreal, Quebec

Autoroute 40 near sortie Lacordaire, St-Leonard, Quebec

Cicero, NY

Hawkesbury, Ontario

Nonetheless, the consensus was that the only way to get consumers to take notice was to make a radical statement. The arguments are hard to ignore, segments of the population would not give the brand a second look were it not for the new exteriors making them muse about changes inside, and stepping into an entirely different McDonald’s reality. And so, in recent years, McDonald’s has embarked on a significant re-imagining of its namesake stores to better reflect current marketplace realities and to be fresh, modern, current and relevant.

Once a brand marketed heavily towards children, McDonald’s has changed their approach and has been trying to elevate the brand beyond burgers and fries for families with young children. In a bold move, the Mansard roof, the primary colours, the plastic seats and tables, the get-in/get-out focus have been shown the exits.

4-Toning down and growing up

First experiementing with revolutionary new looks around 2004, the new corporate look became fully entrenched when McDonald’s announced massive $1Billion investments to upgrade its stores (USA Today, May 09, 2011 / Canadian Press, September 07, 2011).

Aiming to tone down the loud reds and yellows and soften them with a palette of warmer colours, along with complimentary natural materials such as stone, brick, metal, stucco and aluminum, the goal was to project a more refined and grown up taste. The brand that used to be characterized as playful, boisterous, loud, and colourful, has been displaced by a more adult version of itself complete with a professional and polished image.

On the exterior, the roof has altogether disappeared from view, prominent arches are more subtle and flattened, more earth tones, brick, and stone are present, drive-thru lanes have been twinned to increase efficiency, with an emphasis on highlighting the stores as unique selling points and destinations.

Dunn, NC

Montreal Road near Polytek, Ottawa, Ontario

Ogdensburg, NY

Rue Saint Raymond at Rue St Joseph, Gatineau (Hull), Quebec

The interior has been recast with new paint colours and materials, clean crisp lines interspersed with zone seating with distinct areas for lounging and for a quick grab-and-go meal, wooden chairs and tables, faux-leather seating, fireplaces, flat screen televisions, softer lighting, making it more conducive to hang out and lounge. Additionally, the menu itself has been redesigned to offer newer choices and healthier options. Additionally, with a renewed coffee/specialty coffee focus, the McCafé concept has become an integral part of the mix with clear brand elements, such as the brown coffee hues and the signature red “blade”.

In fact, the McCafé concept has been so successful that some stores have adopted the brand elements on the exterior as well, re-imaging McDonald’s in the realm of classy coffee houses. More of a kit of parts than a true prototype building shape, the McCafé brand elements are versatile, adaptable and scalable making them ideal for remodels.

Carling Avenue at Maitland, Ottawa, Ontario (prior to remodel)

Carling Avenue at Maitland, Ottawa, Ontario

Billings Bridge Plaza, Ottawa, Ontario (prior to remodel)

Billings Bridge Plaza, Ottawa, Ontario

5-McFailure to authenticate

For a company like McDonald’s, architecture has, intentionally or unintentionally, become part of the brand experience, and part of the brand message. So much so that in the mind of many consumers, McDonald’s remains codified and typified by the double-sloped Mansard roof. Facing mounting competitive pressures, from traditional rivals Wendy’s and Burger King, along with non-traditional competitors, Starbucks and Panera Bread, McDonald’s has opted to walk away from an instantaneous top-of-mind Architectural Identity built up over several generations, and adopt a me-too aesthetic.

Nonetheless, positive initial signs point to increased sales in the double digits and consumers trading up to higher price point items. Indeed, the new look imparts an upscale, modern, and cool vibe, yet, when executed poorly, it can come off as cold, stoic, bland and uninviting.

Arsenal Street, Watertown, NY (unaltered view)

Casselman, Ontario (unaltered view)

Furthermore, without signage, it becomes indistinguishable. What was once a proud and bold Architectural Identity has been cast aside for a copycat expression that is less authentic, more difficult to associate to the brand, less memorable and which too easily blends into the retail landscape.

Ogdensburg, NY (sans sigange)

Ogdensburg, NY

Boulevard Maisonneuve at Boulevard des Allumettières, Gatineau (Hull), Quebec (sans signage)

Boulevard Maisonneuve at Boulevard des Allumettières, Gatineau (Hull), Quebec

Bronson at the Queensway, Ottawa, Ontario (sand signage)

Bronson at the Queensway, Ottawa, Ontario

At this juncture, it is highly premature to speculate if this new design will match the longevity and legendary status of the preceding one.

FORMER McDonald’s, Ogilvie Road at Montreal Road, Ottawa, Ontario

Much like its aggressive foray into the coffee arena, McDonald’s has provided a jolt to the senses by rebooting the physical manifestation of the brand values and position. In doing so, McDonald’s has again enlisted an architectural dialogue to conscientiously help recast, recreate, re-imagine and retell the McDonald’s story.


All brands and trademarks are property of their respective owners.

About marc lortie

marc lortie is an Architectural Designer (Technologist) currently based in Ottawa, Ontario (Canada). marc has several years of experience working in Canada and the USA on various projects, including commercial shopping centres, big-box stores, industrial plants, educational facilities, warehouses, storage facilities, intermodal facilities, hotels, offices, and residential developments. marc is a graduate of Carleton University, Algonquin College and La Cite Collegiale.

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