McDonald's announced in May of last year it would redesign its restaurants to appear more upscale. At the time, Bruce Horovitz from USA Today, who had an exclusive look at one of the first redesigned models, did question whether it would alienate McDonald’s core audience of families with children.

PhotoRecently, the McDonald’s renovations came to my neighborhood of Canton, Mich. After the full facelift was complete, I decided to gage my children’s thoughts about the new makeover. So, as we were driving by in my Dodge Grand Caravan, I decided to throw the question out to my children, “What do you think of the new McDonald’s?”

“Do you like the new look?”

The car was a bit silent. Until Luke spoke up and said, “It kinda looks like a kid’s jail.”

“What!?,” I exclaimed.

I hung a Michigan left onto Michigan Ave. to drive by one my time. Sure enough – I saw it. I saw what Luke was taking about. It did look like they transformed the McDonald’s PlayPlace into a prison from the outside.

What became really apparent to me as a parent is McDonald’s forgot most importantly about the core customer who has influenced – I would ballpark – nearly 80-90 percent of all purchase decisions – children. I remember my mom telling me that one of my first words was McDonald’s or as I said it back then ‘ ‘Donald’s’ since there was a Golden Arches nearly every mile and a million commercials on TV. McDonald’s attracted my attention as a child because of its bright colors and friendly décor. Even at an early age, I recognized this was a place for me. A waving clown, bright red and yellow colors and a big letter ‘M’ – for ‘ME’.

And– when asked which fast-food place my children would like to stop at, they always select McDonald’s. And that will be the pattern until they all turn 12 (then it is Taco Bell). McDonald’s key competitive differentiator and brand roots revolve around kid-friendliness, and it’s paid off: McDonald’s ranked as the No.3 most friendly brand for kids in 2011. The closest in the restaurant
category are Pizza Hut and Burger King, which don’t even fall in the Top 25.

Photo 2So, take a look at the photos and tell me. What do you think? Do you think McDonald's may have misfired in potentially alienating its most influential, engaged, loyal audience?

Only time will tell. I do think there is an opportunity for a competitor to move in on this turf. Who would most likely be best positioned to win over the children? Burger King?

In McDonald’s quest to transform itself, it may have opened the door to competition on its kids-market stronghold.

Leah Haran is Senior Vice President, Client Services at Airfoil Public Relations, a high tech PR agency with offices in Silicon Valley and Detroit.