The customization of everything.

Customization is the key to traffic in 2017. It stymies the veto, improves the experience curve, and empowers guests.

customization, flavor, experience curve, restaurant

Subway probably should get all the credit for starting this customization movement. Guests walking down the service line, selecting their own ingredients to make the sandwich exactly what they want at that moment. They were not the first to do it. Burger King tried differentiating from McDonald’s in the 70’s, remember? But Subway was first to open so many stores in so many places. They got consumers used to it and set a new standard.

Along comes Chipotle. Customization advances to a new level. Even with a handful of ingredients, people get a taste of a custom meal and they like it. And for ten years, consumers were given “The Chipotle of x cuisine.” Put it together yourself at the counter, just how you want it.

This is now the norm. This is another reason why Fast Casual continues to take share from QSR and Casual Dining. In the past, there was a soft and squishy emphasis on customization. “If possible, find ways to allow your guests to choose.” Consumer expectations now dictate that they have a choice.

Why can a person customize their shoes but not their hamburger?

The most dominant and disruptive entities in tech and media are platforms. In that context, platforms allow users or other properties to build on top of them. The way Apple allows developers to contribute individual apps for the iPhone that make the product more useful. In other words, platforms allow for customization. Every customer takes the parts they like and leaves the ones they don’t. Why, then, can a person customize their shoes but not their hamburger?

Notice a difference between ordering burgers at Five Guys, Jack In The Box and Ruby Tuesday’s? Jack in the Box and Ruby Tuesday’s both follow the product model. Pre-set, tested flavor combinations and minimal customization. Exclude an ingredient or add one from a limited pool. Even a combo or meal is pre-packaged. If you are ordering a burger at, it comes with these items.

Five Guys is different because the burger is a platform. It is the first part of your selection process before you begin your customization. Customers only mention the ingredients you want, leaving them empowered and excited to eat their creation. They also leave feeling that they got exactly what they wanted. Because they did.

Most brands make a mistake in how they think about customization. They think about it as an operational element instead of an emotional element. The feeling of empowerment and ultimately, satisfaction, is beyond powerful. Study after study has shown that experience leads to future visits. Brands that correctly provide choices to their guests start that experience well because the menu is built around them.

Too much choice is not always. A hybrid approach, like the menu at The Counter, is a great solution. That brand offers dozens of ingredients, capable of making millions of unique combinations. To keep new guests’ heads from spinning, there are some pre-set items on the menu. People that don’t wish to spend time thinking about each ingredient can choose and move on.

The experience curve also improves as a benefit of customer choice. They can update their order just a bit each time and feel like they are having something new. This keeps visits from eroding and may inspire new occasions.

Another factor to consider is the decision veto. It is harder to not like something when it can be customized to an individual’s liking. Chipotle overcomes the veto by making their ingredients accessible to people with dietary concerns. With their sofritas, even vegans can dine there and have options for customization.

Remember, when Burger King offered their approach to custom orders they took a much more simple approach. “Hold the pickles, hold the lettuce.” Things are a lot more complex now.

Author: Adam Pierno

Adam Pierno has a one-of-a-kind perspective on restaurant and CPGs. He investigates the connections between strategy, media, digital and business goals employing social media listening, analysis and traditional consumer research to find meaningful insights for brands thinking about their futures.