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McDonald's packaging has evolved significantly over the years, in order to reflect change in design trends, branding, sustainability efforts and customer preferences. During its early years, McDonald's used simple and basic packaging, which was plain white with no notable branding.
The First Pie Packaging
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We all know and love the classic McDonald's Apple Pie; in fact, it has been a favorite on the menu ever since the fast food chain opened its doors for the very first time. But did you know, the chain started with numerous pie flavors, and slowly chose Apple to be it's signature flavor? We're not sure what a McDonald's pie flavor entails, but no doubt it was tasty!
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By the late 50's, people distinguished the chain via its decor and exterior signposts. The packaging was still plain and paper-based, which made it easy to dispose of; adding to its overall appeal with new and existing customers. The packaging was portable as well.
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The start of the 60's didn't bring any change to the packaging, but this didn't negatively affect the business in any way, as customers started to increase gradually. The chain quickly became a favorite among businessmen on-the-go, and various families.
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From this point onward, the chain started to expand gradually through counties and states nationwide. It quickly cemented itself into American life, with its family-friendly environment, atmosphere and overall values. However, it remained popular with a huge variety of people.
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By the end of the 60's, McDonald's had created a small fast-food empire, which was an entirely new concept to the majority of people. The population was not used to food being so readily available, seemingly straight after you had ordered said food/drinks.
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In the 1970's, McDonald's introduced the iconic 'clamshell' styrofoam container for its Big Mac, which featured the burger's ingredients prominently on the top. This was one of the first notable changes within their packaging design, and placed the Big Mac as a firm favorite.
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By the middle of the 70's, the Big Mac burger had increased greatly in popularity, and was a featured menu item across all restaurant locations. This is believed to be due to the change in packaging design, which made the overall item more appealing to customers.
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During the late 70's, the restaurant chain had become known for its bright red and yellow color scheme, which featured on every aspect of its locations. This time also saw the introduction of its iconic 'golden arches', which helped distinguish it against its competitors.
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At the start of the 80's, McDonald's transitioned away from styrofoam containers, due to environmental concerns. They started using paper-based packaging for their burgers and sandwiches. This new paper packaging included their 'golden arches', alongside red pinstripes.
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By the mid 80's, the reintroduced paper packaging gained wider popularity with customers, as it was easy to eat from and easy to dispose of. This style of packaging, ensured that the burgers and sandwiches wouldn't become ruined, if a customer was travelling with the food they had ordered.
Image Source: Ad Age
At the end of the 80's, the restaurant had introduced the concept of a 'Drive-Thru' to its customers, making the service of the food even quicker. Again, this was a new concept for many people, and was an exciting way of ordering and eating your meals.
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At the start of the 90's, McDonald's launched the McFlurry and Salad Shaker packaging, which were designed to allow customers to mix their toppings/dressings with their food. This packaging increased the portability of their menu items, and added some variation to the overall menu.
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During the mid 90's, there was a sharp increase in the chain's locations, with them now appearing worldwide! All of the new and existing locations had some form of 'Drive-Thru', making their food even more accessible for every kind of person e.g. large families, businessmen and people travelling.
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The late 90's brought along another packaging alteration. The Happy Meal packaging saw a redesign to include vibrant colors, fun characters and puzzles (to make it more appealing to young children). This particular menu item quickly became a firm favorite, due to its general affordability.
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With the start of the new millennium, McDonald's continued to focus on sustainable packaging, which included items like: paper-wrapped burgers, and salad containers made from recycled materials. This introduction of 'eco-friendly' packaging was quickly accepted, as it only differed slightly from their original packaging.
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By the mid 2000's, McDonald's had become one of the most popular fast-food chains worldwide, and had started to expand its menu items. Some countries included alcohol within their menu e.g. Spain, whereas others had unique items e.g poutine in Canada.
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During the late 2000's, Ronald McDonald became the main mascot of the fast-food chain, which increased the popularity of McDonald's among children. It was a great choice for fast-food, as it was accessible, affordable and provided a range of menu items for families etc.
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For the beginning of the 2010's, McDonald's introduced the 'Worldwide Favorites' campaign, that saw the introduction of packaging inspired by different countries. This packaging featured imagery and designs that reflected international cuisine. This is just one of the many campaigns that McDonald's has run.
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By the mid 2010's, McDonald's had started to introduce seasonal menu items, which were only available for a certain length of time e.g. Christmas-themed drinks, summer drinks and food items. These seasonal menu items, provide customers with more incentive to continue eating at McDonald's.
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During the late 2010's, McDonald's made a significant shift toward sustainability, by committing to sourcing all its packaging from renewable, recycled or certified sources (by 2025). This saw a relatively large shift within their overall packaging e.g. paper straws and cartons.
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With the start of the 2020's, the fast-food chain has continued its focus on sustainability, introducing the 'Better M' packaging in 2021. This packaging incorporates recycled and sustainable materials, with a more simplistic graphics e.g. lettering, shapes.
Image Source: Campaign
By the middle of this decade, McDonald's should have reached their goal of 100% sustainable packaging. This may bring some other slight changes to their packaging, as well as certain branding and advertisement. It is possible that there might be slight changes to their menu items as well.
Image Source: Eater
At the end of this decade, we will probably see a whole new selection of McDonald's packaging, as well as some new and improved menu items. Prices may fluctuate, in order to cover the cost of their sustainability efforts, but their firm favorites will remain the same.
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At this moment in time, McDonald's is continually working to reduce waste, and improve the environmental impact of its packaging. This includes efforts to minimize single-use plastics, and incorporate more recyclable or compostable materials e.g. paper straws, paper takeaway bags.
Plans for the future
Image Source: Reader's Digest
The evolution of McDonald's packaging reflects not only changes in branding, but also the company's commitment to reducing its environmental footprint. The evolution of their packaging, also reflects the changing expectations of its customers/society as a whole.
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McDonald's has run many different promotional campaigns, since its initial opening, with the most famous being: McDonald's Monopoly. This particular promotion, consists of potential prizes being included on packaging stickers, which are designed to fit the buildings etc. included within the board game 'Monopoly'.
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There have been uses of 'retro' packaging being used by the fast-food chain, specifically for promotional purposes. They may have reintroduced a classic menu item (with a modern twist), or they have celebrated key milestones within the company's history.
Changes in branding
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As mentioned previously, McDonald's packaging typically changes alongside its branding e.g. clear branding on the paper wrappers/bags and the incorporation of their key colors (red and yellow). The chain has had a solid style of branding for the past several years, but this may change within the future.
Overall customer satisfaction
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Customer satisfaction has a lot to do with the changes in McDonald's packaging, as the needs of customers have evolved, as well as the increase in take-away services. The changes in packaging have mainly revolved around their paper bags, and the cartons used for certain burgers etc.