Who says drama only belonged to the artists of the 14th century? According to the…
While loading Burger King’s website, I saw the change firsthand. The words „Burger King” were initially written in italics, surrounded by a yellow bun and circled in Sonic the Hedgehog blue. It was the kind of busy, dynamic logo that made me move forward and nervous, and frankly, stressed me out at times. Where is this burger going? Please calm down.
I must have taken it on the day the change went into effect because then the page itself was updated and replaced with a complete redesign of the website, using beige and brown as the background and everything in bold, serifed fonts. The new logo was similar to the one I remember from childhood. There were no more italics, no more unnecessary highlights or dives, and the bun was now a burnt orange. And of course the change came with a PR push that announced a new “minimalist logo” [that] meets the brand development of the time ” said the chainI note that the new logo isn’t exactly new – it’s almost identical to what the company used from 1969 to 1999. I knew exactly what it was trying to do, but despite myself, I liked it.
Burger King isn’t the only company moving backwards. In 2019 Pizza Hut brought back its „classic” logo, used from 1967 to 1999 to replace one with a pitched roof and yellow and green accents. More recently, comedian Craig Robinson is set in a wood-paneled dining room Pac-Man taking faux tiffany lamps as part of a whole retro campaign. Early 2020, Doritos went with them A yellow and orange retro look for its taco-flavored chips, complete with a Frito-Lay logo that was discontinued in 1997. As of 2018, KFC spelled “Kentucky Fried Chicken” in clean black and white text and it’s now a promotional bucket with a drawing by Colonel Sanders like that of the chain used until 1976, next to Pepsi with retro logo. And Yuengling, for a limited time in 2019, released some 80s style cans.
Branding is about who you want to attract. Millennials have that least amount of wealth in the US, but they are adults who make up the majority of the workforce which means there is a great opportunity to woo them with Che Food which is widely available. By returning to logos that existed when Gen Xers and Millennials were kids, brands are trying to convey multiple meanings: convenience, quality, craftsmanship, and possibly an assortment of all the things that Millennials have grown suspicious of fast food.
Fast food isn’t unique in its embrace of the retro. There’s an overall precision to improving the ’70s aesthetic, from the new Silk Sonic album (complete with Bootsy Collins) to the return of bell-bottoms to the general adoption of serifed fonts. „Serif logos generally also convey a sense of rootedness to humanity that is particularly resounding right now – the repetition of the artist’s hand,” wrote Erin DeJesus in 2019, and this peeling has only increased in the past two years. This is one way trends go; Every few years the pendulum swings from previous trends (in our case sans serif fonts and minimalist lines), and every generation looks for inspiration. Right now we want to take our keywords from the 90s, and in the 90s we took over a lot of keywords from the 70s.
But it’s not just that fast food design is going retro, it’s a return to logos almost identical to the ones that abandoned these chains in the 90s and early 2000s. This is partly because brands have a better chance of avoiding the inevitable backlash that occurs every time a brand announces a new logo. Debbie Millman, Chair of the Masters Program in Branding at the School of Visual Arts and host of the podcast Design matters, indicates how often a logo change is faced with a pushback, even if the outrage subsides within a few weeks. But going to an old version of a logo „is one way to avoid it,” she says. „It’s something people know.”
It’s likely to say that many of these brands are dropping the logos they are returning to now around 1999. Millman, who was with branding design firm Sterling Brands at the time, says there has been a big „new millennium” surge where brands want pears to be forward-thinking and dynamic. Millman and Sterling were the ones who italicized the Burger King logo, added a new dimension to the burger, and added that blue swoosh. „It was really successful,” she says. „In every test, people really reacted to it.” The new millennium is, at least as many fast food brands say, a time of movement and new promise. Today is the future!
But the millennium’s promise has not really been fulfilled: September 11th and the recession would soon follow. We have the same war and transphobia and police brutality as we did in the 90s, only now more people are ready to talk about it. And we have a pandemic and the resulting economic crisis to deal with.
In general, aesthetic choices become either acceptance or rejection of the present moment, and a return to retro logos allows fast food brands to distance themselves from the present, which in any case sucks. „These are the logos that existed when adults were children or were just born,” says Millman. And with the designs returning to what Pizza Hut looked like when you were maybe eight years old, the game of nostalgia gets stronger. „It’s a way of pointing out a better or easier time in someone’s life, even if it wasn’t really better,” says Millman. It’s almost a political stance – get back to „normal” before things get out of hand. It’s as close as possible to the elusive „timeless”.
While boomers watched fast food Gen X and Millennials were mushroomed across the country and the first generations to see fast food ubiquitous. And that ubiquity also exposed millennials to a roller coaster ride in public communication about what to think about it. In 2004, Morgan Spurlock Super size me was released, and in 2006 Michael Pollan released The omnivorous dilemma. These media confirmed what was intuitively obvious: fast food was harmful to the environment, the food supply chain and workers. But the rightly defamatory message was also based on a fat argument about what fast food means to health, and implied that those who bought a $ 1 burger had no „taste”. It felt like a shameful top-down discourse, and while it had good points, it was also deeply alienating.
Pollan and the like ushered in a new farm-to-table slow food movement in certain classes that produced incredible meals at best to be sustainable, and at worst, unbearable. In response to the latter, a new generation of chefs, notably David Chang, welcomed the „Lowbrow,” who took care of Popeyes and Dominoes and insisted that anyone who didn’t enjoy them was a joyless snob. They were right too. The whole reason fast food became popular is because it is designed to be delicious. So enjoying fast food meant rejecting the bougie aesthetic and being a person of the people, not throwing yum. Building on that self-congratulatory backlash, these retro logos encourage consumers to just enjoy themselves, indulging in what they’ve been craving for since childhood, stop worrying, and love the stuffed crust.
In her comic „Design is not neutralArtist Colleen Tighe explores the ethics of designing for billion dollar companies. „What does it really mean to take faceless tech companies involved in the destruction of public goods and services, fair wages and neighborhoods, and make them look friendly and simple?” She asks. Burger King still pays poverty wages and just accepted Stop buying abused chickens after immense public pressure and initiatives like the „Sustainable Whopper” are actually not very sustainable, more for PR than anything else. We know it does whether the Megachain has a Swoopy 2000s logo or a retro chic logo. But Burger King and the others know that they have a chance to gloss over any negative associations by reminding us of a more positive time, even if it’s an outright fantasy.
„Design is all subjective and everything has to do with what marketing is trying to convey,” says Millman. She points out the similarities between the Nike Swoosh, the Newport cigarette logo and the red boomerang around the Cital One sign, and how customers have very different associations with these brands, even if their branding looks the same. A logo is just a symbol that we attach importance to. These new retro designs draw on the heart and evoke warmer, simpler times, but that’s because customers are the ones who have those associations. We create the nostalgia, not the brand.
The pendulum can swing again in 20 years. Gen Z may have an ironic fondness for the aggressive millennium logos, and advertising firms might jump into them to get more pizza moving. But the point will be the same: making us forget what we know and buy based on what we feel.