While loading Burger King’s website, I saw the change firsthand. The words “Burger King” were italicized at first, surrounded by a yellow bun and encircled in Sonic the Hedgehog blue. It was the sort of busy, dynamic logo that evoked forward movement and edginess, and that honestly sometimes stressed me out. Where is this burger going? Please calm down.
I must have hit it on the day the change went into effect, because then, the page refreshed itself, and it was replaced by an entire site redesign, with beiges and browns serving as the background and everything written in fat, serifed fonts. The new logo was similar to the one I remember from my childhood. There were no more italics, no more extraneous highlights or swoops, and the bun was now a burnt orange. And of course, the change came with a PR push touting a new “minimalist logo [that] seamlessly meets the brand evolution of the times,” the chain said, noting that the new logo is not actually new — it’s nearly identical to those 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 forward by looking backward. In 2019, Pizza Hut brought back its “classic” logo, used from 1967 to 1999, to replace one with a tilted roof and yellow and green accents. More recently, its ads feature comedian Craig Robinson in a wood-paneled dining room, playing Pac-Man under faux-Tiffany lamps as part of a whole retro campaign. Early in 2020, Doritos went with a yellow-and-orange retro look for its taco-flavored chips, complete with a Frito-Lay logo discontinued in 1997. Starting in 2018, KFC spelled out “Kentucky Fried Chicken” in clean black-and-white text, and is now advertising buckets featuring a drawing of Colonel Sanders like the one the chain used through 1976, alongside retro-logoed Pepsi. And Yuengling, for a limited time in 2019, released some ’80s-style cans.
Branding is all about who you’re trying to attract. Millennials have the least amount of wealth in the U.S., but they’re adults who make up the largest part of the workforce, meaning there’s a huge opportunity to court them with cheap food that is available everywhere. By reverting to logos that existed when Gen Xers and millennials were kids, brands are attempting to convey multiple meanings: comfort, quality, handmade-ness, and quite possibly an elision of all the things millennials grew up to distrust about fast food.
Fast food is not unique in its embrace of the retro. There’s an overall appreciation for ’70s aesthetics happening, from the new Silk Sonic album (complete with Bootsy Collins) to the return of bell bottoms to the general spread of serifed fonts. “Serif logos more generally also convey a sense of rootedness to humanity that’s particularly appealing right now — the reappearance of the hand of the artist,” wrote Erin DeJesus back in 2019, and that appeal has only proliferated over the past two years. This is sort of just how trends go; every few years, the pendulum swings from the previous trends (which in our case was sans serif fonts and minimalist lines), and each generation looks backward for inspiration. Right now we happen to be taking our cues from the ’90s, and back in the ’90s, we were taking a lot of cues from the ’70s.
But it’s not just that fast-food graphic design is going retro, it’s that it’s reverting to logos that are nearly identical to the ones these chains gave up in the ’90s and early 2000s. Some of that is because it gives brands a better chance at avoiding the inevitable backlash that comes every time a brand announces a new logo. Debbie Millman, the chair of the master’s in branding program at the School of Visual Arts and the host of the podcast Design Matters, points out how often a logo change is met with pushback, even if the outrage dies down in a matter of weeks. But going to an old version of a logo “is a way to avoid that,” she says. “It’s already something people know.”
It’s perhaps telling that many of these brands shed the logos they’re now returning to around 1999. Millman, who at the time was at branding design firm Sterling Brands, says there was a big “new millennium” push, with brands wanting to appear forward-thinking and dynamic. Millman and Sterling were the ones who made Burger King’s logo italic, added dimension to the burger, and added that blue swoosh. “It was really successful,” she says “In every test, people really responded to it.” The new millennium, at least as a lot of fast-food branding tells it, is a time of movement and new promise. It’s the future, today!
But the promise of the millennium hasn’t really panned out: 9/11 and the recession would soon follow. We have the same war and transphobia and police brutality we had in the ’90s, only now more people are willing to talk about it. And we have a pandemic, and the ensuing economic crisis, to deal with.
In general, aesthetic choices turn into either an acceptance or rejection of the present moment, and by returning to retro logos, fast-food brands can distance themselves from the present, which by all accounts sucks. “These are the logos that were around when adults now were kids, or were just born,” says Millman. And with the designs reverting to what Pizza Hut looked like when you were maybe ei8ght years old, the nostalgia play becomes stronger. “It’s a way to hint at a better or simpler time in someone’s life, even if it wasn’t actually better,” says Millman. It’s almost a political posturing — going back to “normal,” before things got out of hand. It’s as close as they can get to the elusive “timeless.”
While boomers watched fast food spread across the country like a fungus, Gen X and millennials became the first generations for whom fast food was ubiquitous. And that omnipresence also exposed millennials to a roller coaster of public communications about what to think about it. In 2004, Morgan Spurlock’s Super Size Me was released, and in 2006 Michael Pollan published The Omnivore’s Dilemma. This media confirmed what was intuitively obvious: Fast food was detrimental to the environment, to the food supply chain, and to workers. But the rightfully vilifying messaging also relied on a fatphobic argument about what fast food does to one’s health, and implied those who bought a $1 burger had no “taste.” It felt like a shaming, top-down discourse, and while it had good points, it was also profoundly alienating.
Pollan and the like did usher in a new slow food, farm-to-table movement across certain classes, which at its best produced incredible meals with a mind to being sustainable and at its worst was insufferably twee. In response to the latter, a new generation of chefs, most notably David Chang, embraced the “lowbrow,” waxing about Popeyes and Domino’s, insisting anyone who didn’t enjoy it was a joyless snob. They, too, had a point. The whole reason fast food became popular is that it’s designed to be delicious. To enjoy fast food, then, was to reject bougie aesthetics and be a person of the people, to not yuck a yum. These retro logos build on that self-congratulating backlash, encouraging consumers to just enjoy themselves, just give in to what they’ve craved since they were little, stop worrying and love the stuffed crust.
In her comic “Design Is Not Neutral,” artist Colleen Tighe addresses the ethics of designing for billion-dollar corporations. “What does it really mean to take faceless tech companies, complicit in the destruction of public goods and services, fair wages, neighborhoods, and design them to look friendly and simple?” she asks. Burger King still pays poverty wages and has only pledged to stop buying abused chickens after immense public pressure, and initiatives like the “Sustainable Whopper” aren’t actually very sustainable, more for PR than anything. We know this is the case whether the megachain has a swoopy 2000s logo or a retro-chic one. But Burger King and the rest know they have a chance at glossing over all the negative associations by reminding us of a more positive time, even if it’s a complete fantasy.
“Design is all subjective, and all has to do with what the 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 Capital One sign, and how customers have wildly different associations with these brands, even if their branding looks the same. A logo is just a symbol that we put meaning into. These new-retro designs tug at heartstrings and evoke warmer, simpler times, but that’s because the customers are the ones holding those associations. We’re creating the nostalgia, not the brand.
In 20 years, the pendulum may swing again. Gen Z may have an ironic fondness for the aggressive millennium-era logos, and ad companies may capitalize on that to move more pizza. But the point will be the same: to make us forget about what we know and buy based on what we feel.