Comment: A chain reaction is taking fast food design to a new level says Nigel Collett of RPA: Group

Fast food restaurants have built their success on one core idea: deliver the same offer no matter where you are on the planet.  And for a long time we have all enjoyed seeing identical products coming off the fast food production line. We have felt reassured by the factory-like ambience that speaks of reliability and uniformity. Burgers, chicken, pizzas and the like were simple, unsophisticated foods which inhabited a simple, unsophisticated environment.

But times have changed. Increasingly coffee bars and even fast food restaurants are redefining themselves through the design of their outlets. They are rewriting the rulebook. The 'one look for everywhere' approach, which traditionally made sense and helped to underscore a brand's identity, has begun to look downmarket rather than consistent, impersonal rather than recognisable. Consumers expect a more premium experience and the cookie-cutter strategy that dominated the sector is rapidly losing traction.

Part of the reason is the artisan ethos pioneered by small players.  Brands like Bill's and Leon - both of which have fewer than 100 UK sites - tapped into the zeitgeist by borrowing design cues from aspirational domestic interiors and as a result made ambience and excellent  food the essence of the brand.  Fashionable industrial lighting, quality natural materials like wood, stone and metal, quirky buildings, intriguing props and unusual artwork all work to give customers an authentic sense of place.    

Big brands are now tapping into the trend and making the expression of their identities far more nuanced. Starbucks has morphed itself to fit the high end neighbourhood of Conduit Street in London, with an outlet which downplays obvious branding. Instead it has the atmosphere of a chic apartment. It feels like a personalised space and uses all manner of bespoke or 'found' fixtures and fittings: artwork from old teaboxes found in Bolton, shelving made out of fallen Welsh oak trees, floorboards salvaged from an old hotel. The result is a laid-back atmosphere which increases dwell time, blends in with the locality and says far more about the brand than saturating the space with corporate colours and logos.

KFC, the epitome of a fast food brand, has also been able to make the strategy work. Its Bracknell outlet launched a radical new look with brick panels, copper lighting fixtures and handwritten signs. The sense of stylish domestic interior is evident through 'kitchen tables' with pendant lighting which evokes the idea of shared family meals, while the semi-open plan kitchen makes food preparation feel more intimate.  The iconic KFC colourways, graphics and visual identity take a back seat and allow the environment to become the brand hero.

Burger King has also moved away from full-on corporate statement with a new interior scheme that combines copper, brick, bamboo and reclaimed wood. Branding is subtle with logos embossed into solid wood tabletops. 

These environments pick up on the UK consumer's longstanding love affair with property and interiors.  As the 'grand designs' generation we all understand the visual language of  industrial lighting, reclaimed materials and an interior-designed 'look.' By creating store designs which tap into this aesthetic, fast food brands can become more flexible.  They are able to broaden their appeal and their offer, morphing to fit specific local conditions.  Burger King sees the new schemes as an option rather than mandatory; they add another facet to the brand identity rather than reinventing it.

Interestingly the new KFC concept in the US is an unashamed return to the old days of fast food restaurants, with super brash branding dominating inside and out in a bold pastiche of its original 50s outlets. There is nothing subtle to find here. Fast food restaurants first found a place in the market with this strategy: the design of outlets ensured that customers sensed the giant corporation behind the standardised offer. But consumers have become less impressed with monolithic faceless corporations and want businesses across all sectors to demonstrate honesty, authenticity and more personal service. 

The fast food sector is particularly vulnerable to this change in consumer expectations and we can expect to see the trend for more intimate, almost domestic environments to continue. Branding is now about capturing an ambiance rather than corporate colours and a logo count.

Nigel Collett is CEO of RPA: Group