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Evolution of Fast Food Part 1: History

The history of fast food

With an estimated $570 billion in annual global sales, the fast-food industry isn’t showing signs of dying out any time soon. How has fast food and its marketing evolved through the decades and what emerging trends and threats should industry players be aware of?

From food that’s fast to fast food

Records dating back all the way to Ancient Roman times show that the demand (and supply) for affordable, convenient food has existed for a long time, in different variations. However, fast food as we know it today was pioneered in the USA- first with hamburger chain White Castle opening in 1921, and then the first fast-food McDonald’s making an appearance in 1948, around the time when automobiles (and subsequently, drive-ins) became popular.

Today, fast food refers to “hot food that’s quick to cook or already cooked and is therefore served very quickly in a restaurant”. Fast food brands such as McDonald’s and Kentucky Fried Chicken (KFC) are well-known globally, with research in the 90s concluding that the trademark symbol for McDonald’s was more globally recognisable than the Christian cross.

From fast food to junk food

The information age has brought out a lot of information about the fast-food industry that has made a lot of people reluctant to continue supporting it. Issues around health, ethics, anti-consumerism and the environment have been raised through the years and may have contributed to changes in public perception, which is apparent in our language, with the shift from “fast” food to “junk” food.

While fast food quickly became a staple in the diets of millions of people (which is where it remains today), the 1990s and early 2000s marked a change in attitude toward unhealthy food. Indie films and documentaries such as Super Size Me and Food Inc., as well as books, billboards and various other forms of media from various organisations and activists sent out warnings to consumers, urging them to look closer at the food they’re putting into their bodies.

A 2015 piece by the New York Times titled A Seismic Shift in How People Eat suggested that McDonald’s should change the “back of the house for its 36,000 restaurants” from looking like a “mini-factory serving fried frozen patties and french fries” to looking more like a “kitchen serving freshly prepared meals with locally sourced vegetables and grains”. This opinion is based on a massive shift in the way millions of people view their food- a shift which has become impossible to ignore.

Despite these movements though, fast food chains survive- especially those that know how to embrace the modern marketing tools at their disposal.

A new age of temptation

The internet has given fast-food chains a new advertising playground, where they can use meme culture, influencers and image-focussed platforms such as Instagram and Tumblr to their advantage, especially when appealing to younger demographics.

The imagery of long-standing fast food brands such as McDonald’s and KFC has even inspired modern fashion designers, and younger demographics connect with this aesthetic due to, among other things, its nostalgic appeal.

As seen in this example of KFC Russia collaborating with streetwear label Mam Cupy, major fast-food brands are well aware of this appeal and are using it to their advantage in targeting their younger demographics. Another powerful way fast-food brands utilise nostalgia is by bringing back retro flavours and previously discontinued menu items.

No matter the era, there will always be a demand for quick, cheap and tasty food. The fast-food industry has undeniably revolutionised the way billions of people around the globe eat, but a similar evolution is necessary in their digital marketing efforts if fast food joints want to continue attract-ing patrons.

Note: If you enjoyed this post, you may want to check out part 2 here

About the author

Zapriana Atanassova is a digital copywriter and community manager with a passion for creativity and communication. After majoring in Journalism and International Studies at Monash South Afri-ca, she found her place among the creative (crazy) geniuses of the Arc Interactive team – a digital marketing agency based in Sandton, Johannesburg.

For more information, visit www.arcinteractive.co.

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