Recapturing modernity

An encounter with McDonald’s vice president of concept and design Denis Weil.

McDonald's 521 (photo credit: Courtesy)
McDonald's 521
(photo credit: Courtesy)
If you go by appearances, Denis Weil does not look like a designer. A film or theater producer would be much more likely to cast him in the role of bus driver, or maybe police detective.
Yet this big, somewhat bulky 50- year-old native of Switzerland is a cutting- edge designer on whom McDonald’s Corporation has pinned its hopes for future success.
Currently McDonald’s vice president of concept and design, Weil recently took a couple of days off from his job of dragging the fast food giant into the 21st century to come here as a guest of Bezalel Academy of Art and Design to talk to students of design management and comment on their senior projects.
What is design management? “Design management started off being about designers who don’t do design anymore, because they’ve been promoted up into management,” Weil says, laughing. “Now it’s about taking things designed in the studio and putting them into the market.
So, on the one hand, it’s about getting creativity out and innovation out of your design studio and, on the other, it’s integrating the designs into the market with the rest of the business.”
And why does McDonald’s need a “design manager” like Weil? As the company entered the new millennium, it found itself the victim of its own success.
Having supersized itself to upward of 30,000 outlets in more than 100 countries, McDonald’s core markets were oversaturated with McDonald’s restaurants, each one an almost identical copy of the other, and all serving the same core menu. Sales became sluggish as McDonald’s stock price slumped below $13 a share.
Company executives realized that they were relying too much on expansion, using new store growth as their corporate engine. They decided that McDonald’s needed to shift its strategy from being focused only on being biggest – and building more stores – to being better. That meant trying to bring more customers back to their existing stores, as well as to new ones. And for that, they turned to Denis Weil.
“I have had an interest in design from very early on,” he recalls. “When I was a kid I was drawing houses. When I was bored at school, I’d draw floor plans to rearrange my room at home. The family business was the schmatte business, so I grew up designing women’s clothes also.
But I also had an interest in business. I went into chemical engineering first – an interesting choice, considering what I’ve told you so far. But then I started my career at Proctor and Gamble in product development. I designed diapers. My design career started with non-sagging diapers.”
After six years at P&G, Weil tried his hand in the fashion business, followed by another six years at an online dating company.
Still unsatisfied, he went back to school and earned a master’s degree in design from the Illinois Institute of Technology in Chicago. From there he found his niche at McDonald’s in 2001.
WHAT WEIL found at McDonald’s was a restaurant, product and service design that had not seen any real modification since the late 1970s, when the company changed its buildings’ red and white walls and huge neon arches to quieter bricks and mansard roofs. “We instituted the Plan to Win strategy, a term that we still use today. And the idea was to become our customer’s favorite place and favorite way to eat,” says Weil.
For him, bringing McDonald’s back required “reclaiming the brand’s modernity,” as well as a more contemporary idea of what he calls “democratization.”
“When McDonald’s began in the 1940s and ’50s, it was very modern. We revolutionized the whole concept of convenience food. We made our restaurants more accessible and easy to get to, with lots of parking space. We expanded at the same time the highway system developed in the US, making the restaurants not only more accessible but also more respectable. These weren’t ‘greasy spoon’ hamburger joints, but nice clean restaurants you could take your kids to. We made them more available for families, and this involved the democratization of our brand. We made it possible for families to go out for dinner more frequently, not just on special occasions. So that kind of democratization made us very modern at the time,” Weil says.
“We want to reclaim that modernity, but in today’s terms. And today, what ‘modern’ means to customers is a little bit different.
It’s still all of the things we offered before: convenience, quality and value.
But what is also important today is some sense of more interesting food, authenticity, ethnic flavor and ultra-convenience.
What was convenient before is not enough now. It’s not enough, for example, to provide parking. We now have to give customers more choice and control. We’re used to much more control in our lives with the Web and our mobile phones. So, around the world, we’re now looking at self-ordering kiosks, to give more control to the customers. And we also want to give customers more choice.”
As vice president for concept and design, Weil has made changes that reflect his personal emphasis on customer-focused design. His particular task, he says, is to improve McDonald’s “customer experience,” which involves a seamless integration of what he calls the “Five Ps.” These are product, place, people, price and promotion.
According to Weil, this crossfunctional approach has been hugely successful, enabling McDonald’s to grow again, with a newly defined concept of democratization.
“McDonald’s is one of the few places where you have different elements, different levels of society all coming together under one roof. In that way, McDonald’s is one of the few community centers left.
You can have a very low income family and an upscale businessman seated together in the same place. What we’re seeing, as a result of our re-imaging, is that we’re actually getting back more of the higher end customers to McDonald’s, with everyone able to be in a place where they feel comfortable. We’re optimizing our design to make it universal, or ‘G-rated.’ ” Weil does not mean “universal” in the way that word has traditionally been understood at McDonald’s, with one basic building design, one service design and one menu for a mass-market of millions, first across America and then around the world. By “optimizing the design,” he has created a very different kind of democratization than that which characterized 1950s America, where everyone read the same mass-market magazines, everyone watched the same TV shows on three TV networks and everyone drove up to a McDonald’s that looked the same from Maine to California.
“Our key audiences are obviously families – people coming as families for a relaxed family experience, teenagers and young adults coming socially as a group and the adult workday lunch. So what we try to do in our restaurants is to have different zones, with different seating arrangements, to make the experience good for those different groups. So we have an area with booth seating, so families can stay together; an area with cafélike seating, which is more for two friends; we have high stools for the adult workday crowd to have a quick coffee, all under one roof. This is what we mean by ‘democratization’ now – making McDonald’s a community center, a space where everyone feels comfortable,” Weil says.
ONE VERY obvious shift in the previous meaning of democratization is the abandonment of the old “one design fits all” concept in favor of the current “boutiquing” of McDonald’s restaurants – from store to store, and from country to country.
McDonald’s is able to do this on a global level relatively easily, thanks to the way the company is put together.
“McDonald’s is decentralized,” Weil says.
“Eighty-five percent of our outlets are privately owned franchises; only 15 percent are corporately owned. We have local people who are in each market, who know what the market wants and how we need to adapt to it. What we try to manage is local relevance, with ‘bottoms-up’ design, with global consistency that still make it feel like our own known brand. So it’s a global voice with local accents. We try to balance the two, and sometimes we go more in one direction and sometimes in the other. But whenever we have to change, we go more in the local direction.”
McDonald’s currently has 160 outlets here, about 30 of which are kosher, with around 10 new stores opening every year.
Forty existing restaurants have already been remodeled, with all of the rest to follow.
A lot of the refurbishing involves dividing the restaurants into different seating zones, for different types of customers.
Weil’s appraisal of the Israeli market in general is interesting: “The product design here is amazing. The changes I have seen in the 35 years that I’ve been coming to Israel are amazing.” Weil pauses for a moment and says diplomatically, “But I think that service is still an opportunity here.”
As our meeting with Weil comes to a close, we decide to tap his expertise by asking his opinion of The Jerusalem Post Magazine, from a design perspective. He genially flips through a copy and says, “Well, the size format is very friendly, because I can easily hold it in one hand. It feels thick enough, which leads me to think it would be worthwhile to leaf through it. If it were too thin, I would chuck it away, because I wouldn’t think there’s anything of value in it. And it’s not overwhelming, so that’s good. From a graphic design viewpoint, the typeface is big and user friendly. It’s easy to read, the layout is good – I like it. It’s a good balance between user-friendliness and style.”
Weil smiles broadly, winks and asks, “Do I get paid for this consultation?” “The check is in the mail,” we reply, winking back.