Fast food has always been synonymous with cartoon characters, kids meals and grease-stained paper bags full of salty French fries. The thought of going to a client lunch from a place where you pay for your food at the counter or to grab a coffee and study for four hours at a place with a kids’ play-land never really crossed a lot of minds.
The seeds of change in the fast food industry were planted years ago, with the establishing of gourmet-inspired yet financially accessible eats such as Chipotle Mexican Grill. Add in a dramatic economic downturn and a rise in “foodie” culture and you have a recipe for a drastic shift in fast food trends — sophisticated diners opting for those more affordable, fast-casual choices such as Chipotle and Panera Bread Co. As a middle ground between fast food and casual dining emerged, fast food chains quickly realized they had some catching up to do.
What we’re seeing now
The fast-casual “shift” has manifested in a few different ways. Some restaurants have made their menus more minimalist, offering a more customized approach to food assembly. Others have added whole new sections to their menu in an attempt to attract a more grown-up crowd — like Wendy’s and their growing list of “premium,” pub-inspired menu items, their latest being pulled pork, either as the main event or a burger/poutine topper. Other premium menu items Wendy’s has introduced in the past two years include the Asian Cashew Chicken Salad or its Pretzel Bacon Burger.
McDonalds has taken a different approach. The introduction of their new McCafé line of smoothies, espresso and foamy milk came around the same time that free wifi became standard in their stores, which has helped diversify the brand just slightly.
Despite these efforts, same store sales at McDonalds and other fast food chains have experienced a recent decline as fast-casual giants Chipotle and Five Guys grasp at not just the Instagram generation, but the business lunch crowd too.
This past August, Taco Bell parent company Yum Brands opened up U.S. Taco, a fast-casual California haunt with a tiny menu of American dishes with a Mexican twist. It’s all about presentation, as if ready to be snapped on a smartphone camera, and the colourful ingredients give the illusion of straight-from-the-farmer’s-market freshness.
Why marketers should care
There are so many lessons to be learned here that stretch far beyond the realm of deep-fryers and tray liners.
Relying on the status quo and calling it a “classic” is not enough.
But attempting to pull a fast one on your audience and give yourself a partial facelift is not a guaranteed win either. You can’t make a burger joint into Starbucks — you may be able to lure in a few college kids with your reasonably-priced coffee, but unless you want to get rid of your dollar menu and kids meal toys (which you probably don’t want to risk doing), everyone knows that you haven’t really changed.
And no, this doesn’t just apply to restaurants.
Branding is now something that needs to be done with a lot more precision and care, and that precision and care has to be taken right off the bat.
Successful re-branding rarely involves hitting a metaphorical reset switch — look at JC Penny’s disastrous attempt to make their department stores into sleek, Apple Store-like boutiques, or Radio Shack’s 2009 re-naming to “The Shack” in an attempt to skew young and hip when it had been known as anything but for so long. These re-brandings were expensive, with little payoff.
Re-branding is a process that needs to be done artfully and meticulously — with a scalpel, not a chainsaw. So it’s best to establish a brand that you’re confident can withstand the test of time.
Now, it may seem demanding or even unattainable to say, “Create a brand that will remain timeless and relevant in a rapidly changing world.” But it’s possible.
If you’re an entrepreneur or pushing a new brand, you have to ask yourself: is your brand rooted in values that are temporary and trendy, or do they go deeper? Because when hash-tags and irony are no longer the coolest kids in school, the audience will notice when you suddenly pull the old switcheroo. Brands should be adaptable to trends, but not transform every time something new comes along — bend, don’t break. That’s why Chipotle’s image and menu has remained relatively unchanged since the late 90s while Wendy’s have gone through countless transformations.
So yes, you can learn a lot from burger joints.