The customers or the brand. Who comes first?

More often than not, the answer is the latter. The needs of the brand and the company behind it drive the decisions. Adding something to the menu because the price dropped. Opening a location in a market just to add to the map. Having a presence on a social media channel because our competitor is there. Customers are often treated as an afterthought.

We who work on the inside of restaurant brands are focused on our business. Everything we see we apply to improving our performance. We analyze tiny details of competitors or new concepts. We obsess over commodity costs and changes to supply chain.

Customers don’t think about these things much. People aren’t rational decision makers. They make most decisions with emotion. Then they use logic to rationalize. Any decision can be better sold by making it meaningful to the customer. It’s important for restaurant brands to design that meaning into everything it does. Bolting on a marketing oriented reason to believe just feels fake. Consumers crave authenticity and will always sniff that out.

Put the customers first. Easily said. Not so easily achieved on an organizational level. Here are some ways to start shifting the internal approach to ‘customer first.’

Walk in their shoes

Especially in larger organizations, it is very easy to get caught up in the company culture. Endless meetings and conversations can convince us that the outside world thinks about our brand or our competitor in the same ways we do. Are they as focused on the change in hot sauce? To us, it may be a simple change in vendors, saving money and offering similar flavor. To them, it may have changed something fundamental about the experience.

Make yourself a customer. Go to the restaurants. Not as a marketer or as a ‘secret shopper’ but as a guest. Bring friends or family. Observe the experience. Experience it first-hand. Feel like you’ve mastered your own brand (you likely have!) go shop competitors. Try your top competitor. Try new concepts outside your category. Learn what is changing on the experience curve and people are reacting to. That seems extremely simple, and it is. Sometimes the simplest exercises yield the biggest insights.

Be a solution

Being a guest will help you understand how your guests use your brand. Yes, they’re coming in for a good meal and hospitality. But do they come in for comfort food? Is it a family treat? An efficient business lunch? Think about ways to optimize each of those experiences for the customer. If someone is coming in for a quick meal, what can you offer to make it a step faster or more added on as a carryout item? When you define the problem you’re solving for your guests, new products will be designed around them. And more appealing.

Respect customers’ taste

Another simple approach is to identify simple things that can be improved, and taking action. Have a lot of customers ordering entree’s without the dressing? Add that option to your menu. If people are upset about the change in hot sauce, give them an option. The reason the Coke Freestyle machine was so popular wasn’t because of it’s cool design (although that helped). People loved it because they could have exactly the flavor they wanted with their meal. That might mean that at a burger concept like Five Guys, they go with Coke Classic with cherry and raspberry; but at a Mexican meal, they choose Vanilla Coke with a touch of orange.

In our research, we’ve found that experience with your brand has the largest impact on future visits. If hospitality is important to your organization, make sure you are finding ways to make each guest feel like you are creating experiences just for them. Satisfy their emotional reaction to the experience, and let them rationalize their decisions moving forward.

Waning brand loyalty means the experience curve matters

Dozens of new restaurant chains launched this year, each changing the expectation of consumers just a bit more. With more competition, it should come as no surprise that loyalty is down, or at least that brand loyalty does not mean what it once did. People take advantage of choice and offers as their budgets continue to be tight. Understanding the experience curve can help brands stem the waning tide of brand loyalty.

Is brand loyalty down? In some categories worse than others. Facebook shared a study they conducted to identify the differences between “Brand Loyalists” and “Repeat Purchasers.” Interestingly, they were able to divide up the two groups by the descriptive words they used about their favorite brands. Loyalists, it seems, use experiential words. Words like fun, friendly, clean, innovative.

New is better than known.

What is causing the change in loyalty? In a recent article in Forbes, the author ties it back to macro shifts in culture itself. Loyalty has dissolved across many parts of life, and now brands suffer as a result. An interesting read for sure. The most relevant driver listed there is “‘New’ is better than ‘Known’.” It isn’t backed by any statistics, but is inherently understandable.

For each new restaurant concept, there is a trial. People want an experience they recognize or can quickly grasp, but they do not want the same old experience. This is a shift in the experience paradigm. Quick service operations came to dominance in the 70’s and especially the 80’s by standardizing everything about their experience. Fast casuals have exploited some of those standards for better or worse. Guests are familiar with waiting in line for a hamburger at Five Guys from QSR experiences. But the true open kitchen and communication style of the staff tells guests immediately that this is going to be different.

Facebook, brand loyalty, experience, QSR, fast casual, experience curve
Brand loyalists use more experiential terms to describe their favorite brands (in orange), according to Facebook.

McDonald’s has been tinkering with their experience, to find ways to align with Fast Casuals. And some new ways to stand out. Make no mistake, McDonald’s understands they will never identify a new permanent model for experience. What they are testing is more likely how much change consumers need to feel in each experience? How similar does each visit need to be to feel familiar in a positive way? How different does each visit need to be to feel new?

There are typically three phases to the crest and fall of brands in this space. At Food & Restaurant Marketing, we call this the ‘experience curve.’

Trial phase

A guests first visits are critical to building repeat traffic and word of mouth. To survive this initial phase the restaurant has to fall in the middle of the experience curve outlined above. Some things should be familiar, some things new, zero things bad. Of course, this all presumes delicious food, well prepared.

For fast casual pizza concepts like Pie Five or Fired Pie, this is the layout of a traditional pizza restaurant. A walk-up counter that feels familiar, and visible toppings as people have become accustomed to at Subway or Chipotle. But the idea of choosing those toppings for a pizza is the twist; something new.

Comfort and exploration

In this phase, guests get more bold as they understand the concept. They have their ‘usual’ favorite items. They explore the menu and try to find new ways to enjoy the restaurant. New ways to make it their own. This might come as soon as a third visit. The guests begin to look for variations of the standard menu, or perhaps for ‘secret’ items a few more visits in.

Guest will begin probing the staff and often online for tips during this phase. This behavior is the maturation of the brand experience. But also, can lead to the next phase.

Cresting popularity

This phase may not begin for a long time. It is dependent on the ways people are able to experience and change the concept to their whims. When guests run out of new items to try, or ways to mix them up, frequency of visits begins to decline. Word of mouth slows.

The key is in extending the comfort and exploration phase by mixing up the menu and tweaking the experience. Add in new elements and take out tired ones to keep the experience fresh. Guests will reward brands who understand the experience curve.