McDonald's trying new look

Strategy: Goal for fashion makeover of uniforms is to help project a young lifestyle.

July 06, 2005|By John Schmeltzer | John Schmeltzer,CHICAGO TRIBUNE

Two years into an aggressive, technology-driven campaign to attract young consumers to McDonald's restaurants, the burger giant is turning its attention to crew uniforms, hoping a new look for its predominantly young work force will help make it look like a cool place to work and eat.

Though the specifics haven't been decided, McDonald's Corp. said yesterday that it is beginning a multimillion-dollar fashion makeover for the workers in its 31,000 stores.

The company is looking at more modern attire, maybe even hip-hop inspired designs by the likes of Phat Farm, P. Diddy's Sean John clothes; American Eagle Outfitters; Abercrombie & Fitch; Fubu; Rocawear; or Tommy Hilfiger.

"We would be interested in talking to designers that have those designs that would fit into our overall strategy that are more relevant and contemporary and embody that forever young lifestyle," said Bill Whitman, a McDonald's spokesman.

McDonald's has just begun the process and doesn't expect to see new uniforms in restaurants before the end of this year, Whitman said.

The company's first step was to hire Steve Stoute, the former head of the black music division of Universal's Interscope Records who now heads Translation Consulting and Brand Imaging in New York to assist.

Stoute helped McDonald's land Justin Timberlake for its "I'm Lovin' It" advertising jingle. He linked rapper Jay-Z with Reebok to create the latest hot shoe - S. Carter Collection of RBK sneakers. And he linked Beyonce Knowles, lead singer of Destiny's Child, with Hilfiger's fragrance.

It's those attributes that lead the hamburger giant to believe that Stoute can better link it to a core audience through its uniforms. But others think a uniform, by its very definition, cannot help McDonald's connect with younger generations that value individuality.

"The whole things about uniforms seems to be anti-individuality. The thing that makes kids cool growing up is their style," said urban clothing designer Marc D'Amelio, chief executive of MadSoul Clothing in New York. "It's hard to have your own style when you are wearing the same thing everyone else is."

Giving kids a cool uniform designed by Sean John isn't going to change anything, he said.

"All the things that are uncool about working at McDonald's are still going to be uncool at McDonald's," he said. "You still have to go home smelling like grease."

This would be the first time McDonald's has turned to a popular retail designer for its uniforms, but it's not the first time it has sought outside help.

In 1968, Ottenheimer & Co. Inc. designed a gold princess-style dress with a sailor tie with small McDonald's logos. A gold and white smock complemented it. Male crewmembers wore white or blue shirts with dark pants.

In the 1970s, Stan Herman, who designed uniforms for Trans World Airlines and Avis, designed a long tunic to be worn over pants. It was a design that hung around for nearly a decade, until the mid-1980s, when knit shirts made their debut. In the 1990s, button down chambray shirts were the standard in jade, purple and berry.

The company offers franchisees a choice of four uniform designs for crews and managers in blue, red, white and taupe paired with black pants. Introduced in 2002 and 2003, those uniforms helped define the launch of the chain's new healthier menu.

The National Association of Uniform Manufacturers and Designers estimates that the company could be spending as much as $60 million annually to outfit its employees.

Joseph Anthony, chief executive of Vital Marketing in New York, who did some consulting work for the hamburger giant in 2002, applauded the idea of using new clothing to create a hipper environment.

"It is a contemporaneous move to become a little more relevant to today's youth," said Anthony, noting that other firms, such as the Coca Cola Co. in the 1980s, have successfully branded their clothing for the youth market.

He suggested that McDonald's attempts with wireless Internet, music kiosks and the new uniforms are part of an effort to create an environment where kids can come and hang.

Because McDonald's restaurants generally provide one or two uniforms to workers, the switch will cost restaurant owners several thousand dollars. D'Amelio, however, doubts the idea will work.

"McDonald's franchisees would be better off building a skate park in the back of the store if you want to be cool and get the kids," he said.

The Chicago Tribune is a Tribune Publishing newspaper.

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