McDonald's gets in on luxury packaging

* 4 min read

The fast food giant McDonald's has introduced one-off luxury editions of its burgers in Japan. Packaging expert Gillian Garside-Wight from Your Packaging Partner, A Sun Branding Solutions business brand notes that thought is needed if a brand is going down the luxury packaging route... 

McDonald's hamburgers and luxury: the two don't slip off the tongue effortlessly, and with good reason. McDonald's isn't known for its exclusivity or indeed haute cuisine pedigree; it's very much a grab-and-go purchase - and has traded extremely successfully on that premise thank you very much. So its introduction of the ‘Quarter Pounder Jewelry Series', which I came across recently and which is available only in Japan this summer, is a little at odds with its core business.

For its hamburger ‘series', McDonald's assumes a take on high-end jewellery (and all the bells and whistles that go with it) with names like ‘Gold Ring', ‘Black Diamond' and ‘Ruby Spark' - again something that jars (I don't want to eat a Black Diamond, Ruby Spark etc). This anomaly runs through McDonald's take on luxury packaging, a topic that is currently top of my agenda because I've been researching it for our upcoming NextGEN conference in September.

One-off luxury editions are not new territory for brands. There are countless examples of everyday products going upmarket through packaging. The Marmite XO jar comes in a ‘beautiful gift box' with a label designed to give a sense of heritage and quality to this limited edition spread. Luxury packaging also serves the bland, yet high-end, product well. In cosmetics, while one cream or lotion might be indistinguishable from the next, it's the packaging that plays a role in your decision to purchase.

McDonald's approach is clearly inspired by the king of cool brands, Apple. Opening an Apple product is an experience in itself - like sliding open an air-locked door; the box is designed to drum up anticipation of the premium product inside it. But with the ‘Jewelry Series' burgers there's a disconnect with the packaging: you buy a burger, take it out of the box, eat it and you're done. The packaging gets thrown away and no amount of white gloss card and mirrored inlays are going to change that fact.

The key to making luxury packaging work is to reflect the value of the product in its presentation. McDonald's made a huge leap from cheap and reliable, suited to its fast food heritage, to, well, a bit of a farce really. Japanese website Rocket24News reported responses from savvy diners who quickly cottoned onto the inflated $10 price tag for the ‘Jewelry' burgers as mostly accounting for the packaging.

Intuition and emotion plays a big part in our shopping decisions and we do buy into packaging. We want to feel reassured that we are investing in quality with premium purchases, but there are ways to make a product look more luxurious without being overly clunky.

Using Apple as an example again, although its devices - from iPods to iMacs - now have a hugely elevated status, people's IT kit was once lowlier - a home or office commodity. Apple changed that with its packaging by putting the core product centre stage. All the necessary bits - plugs, adapters and so on - were hidden away inside the streamlined cavities of the box; it didn't even come with a paper manual. The packaging was so considered, so bespoke, and so beautiful, it seemed wrong to throw it away.

Packaging design has a strong role to play in achieving those luxury cues that cut through to our desires. Marmite XO does this through hinting at heritage - layering, detail and typography work together to authentically age this special edition pack. The format of the limited edition itself comes with a certain premium as we experience a desire to collect this rare one-off.

Provenance is important too and one of the best examples of a brand using this to its advantage is Fortnum & Mason. The packaging not only establishes its home in ‘Piccadilly since 1707' through a monogram on each item, but also firmly puts itself on the map by matching its colour palette to that of the building itself.

Luxury packaging should successfully make a ritual out of revealing the product inside, akin to unwrapping a present or a very special box of chocolates. Fundamentally, packaging shouldn't compromise the product by contradicting the business or brand ethos; it should be a true reflection of the product, inside and out. McDonald's: take note.

Gillian Garside-Wight is packaging technology director at Your Packaging Partner