Experience vs. Expect

Experience, experience, experience. Since the 1990’s experts have been talking about experience as the critical component for brands. In 1999, Joseph Pine and James Gilmore wrote The Experience Economy laying the foundation for decades of conversation on this topic. Unlike many books that make a splash in the brand world, the ideas in this one have flourished as a platform, living on and growing as new thinkers add their ideas.

Experience can’t be commoditized. There can be many similar experiences, such as occasions at a fast casual restaurant, but it is something that each guest takes in personally. They process it in their own way and add it to a mental catalogue of experience types they have a unique perspective on.

If you’ve never spent time in the southeastern US, you may expect Famous Dave’s or even Dickie’s as an acceptable standard.

This is because there are multiple thought processes humans have add up to experience. We don’t take in our visit to Famous Dave’s with our eyes alone. We smell the smoke and sauce, the see the decor and the people, we hear the music. Ultimately we interact with a host and a server, maybe a bartender. There is conversation and feedback, maybe a joke and a laugh. Where do we sit? Maybe near a rowdy group or a table with young children. And yes, we eat and drink.

And at each step of the way we are recalling memories related to Famous Dave’s, what we know about other barbecue restaurants and food, bars and restaurants. We index against our likes and dislikes. This experience relates directly to what is created by the sum of life we have lived before this visit: what do we expect? Expectations can be more powerful than our senses.

What we ‘expect’ is rarely the friend of positive experience. They more we expect as a consumer, the easier it is to be let down. The last movie you saw based on a glowing review probably didn’t live up to the hype. Simply put, this is because you expect greatness and the greatness of your imagination outperformed the film itself.

What do you expect from a barbecue restaurant? Thinking about the category brings to mind some very real sensations. If you’ve never spent time in the southeastern US, you may expect Famous Dave’s or even Dickie’s as an acceptable standard. Those in Austin, Alabama or Georgia expect something wholly different. Noise and music, yes. But the food experience is completely different.

This is why the focus has shifted from the experience economy to the expectation economy. Every brand has a product that meets the basic need. Consumers expect that any restaurant will provide a meal. For 20 years, brands have grown based on improvements to the experience. But consumers have now come to expect a baseline of experience as part of their meal. Expectations are fueled by promises made by the brand, experiences elsewhere and by research or information the consumer has gathered independently, such as Yelp reviews.

The challenge now is to deliver on the base level of the category expectation, and to add to the experience in novel ways. This upends expectations and volleys the ball back to competitors leaving them the job of defending their own experience against this new level of service or delight. Only brands that continuously push forward like Domino’s Pizza will be able to rise above what the consumers expect in a low experience category. Order with a tweet and have it delivered by a custom car with a heated cabin? How does the neighborhood pizza place keep up with that new expectation?

Is brand heritage actually a strength?

So many new competitors. New formats. From people building out the Chipotle of _____ model to every cuisine to Eatsa re-introducing¬†automated ordering. Every brand is innovating. And it’s working. Older brands relying on heritage are racing to keep up.

If consumers come back to Pizza Inn is it really because of its heritage?

In this NRN interview with Rave Restaurants new CEO, Scott Crane cites the heritage of Pizza Inn as a strength of the brand. It’s telling that for its sister company Pie Five, Mr. Crane cites potential for innovation as its strength. That is the challenge older brands face.

Rave has a brand on either end of the continuum. Pizza Inn has certainly faced challenges but there is potential for a rebound as pizza has remained strong as a category even through the traffic trough of 2016. Pie Five has experienced growth, along with many fast casual and pizza brands. Pizza Inn has faltered in same store sales growth and average unit volume. But if consumers come back to Pizza Inn is it really because of its heritage? Is the food better because it’s been in business for 60 years? Is the experience unique?

The question is difficult to answer because so few brands stand pat. White Castle has been working to update their brand for the past 15 years, though the food offering and experience has remained largely in tact. Why? Because people come for the food. The olde English logotype wasn’t helping draw customers, but their unique sliders still did. In n’ Out Burger has not changed many things about their experience that would be obvious to most guests. They dependably execute the same food and experience but don’t lead with heritage in their marketing. Instead, they focus on the craveable burgers. Burger King has tried to keep up with the times, but dips back into their heritage in an ironic way, such as their recurring use of The King mascot. The mascot is a symbol of their heritage, but it is in no way explicit.

Another brand that could rely on a legacy story but chooses not to is Denny’s. Instead of almost ever acknowledging their heritage in diner foods, the brand acts very young and modern. They use social media more effectively than most tweens and they explore video and non-traditional media.

People are enamored with the new. With innovation. With disruptors. The number of brand categories in which heritage is a significant advantage is shrinking. Try to name one. Automotive may have been the last stronghold, but Tesla and a dozen startup local auto manufacturers are demonstrating that heritage isn’t necessarily a consumer benefit.

Looking at certain categories in the restaurant world there are places that heritage still plays. Steakhouses have proven that longevity and reputation for procuring the choicest beef and having a unique preparation are a consumer benefit. Morton’s, Smith & Wollensky, Ruth’s Chris own a version of this by having a unique heritage. But visit Morton’s website and see that even they are more focused on the new. New dishes, a new TV tie in. They put heritage in the back seat. Is this a miss on the part of the brand? Or do they know that the brand heritage doesn’t drive visits?

Brands that do focus on heritage know one important thing. They had better deliver on that promise. If a brand like Real Mex’s El Torito asserts itself as authentic Mexican cuisine using the 60 year old recipes of its founder, the food and the experience better align with that promise. If it does, customers can be wowed. When it falls short of authentic, guests notice.

From a brand perspective, finding something unique about a company that separates it from competitors is fantastic. Heritage may be that unique element. There are pitfalls to putting a focus on heritage, especially when walking the tightrope of staying current in the age of constant innovation. The critical exercise that restaurant brands must do is explaining why that heritage is worth my dining dollars.

The customization of everything.

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

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.