The viral hype is on menus, not memes.

Every day it seems that there is a new viral sensation sweeping your social media feed. No, not the latest OK Go video, DJ Khaled snap or Kardashian whatever they do. Think food. First it was the Pinterest-ready cupcakes rendered in beautiful pastels. The next big thing was macarons. Then the cronut became a standout solo hit. Giant pizza slices. Brisket burrito. It feels like these new items hit the internet daily. Because they pretty much do.

Each new item attracts visitors to the restaurant, along with Likes, shares and clicks. And most of these items are the creations of independent restaurants. But major brands don’t fire off crave-worthy novelties at the same pace. Sure KFC had the Double Down, and now sister brand Taco Bell has the Naked Chicken Chalupa (look familiar?). But by-and-large, these items are few and far between.

They usually play like novelties invented just for the press release. Gimmicks like the Panera Bread “secret menu” attempt, designed to ride the success pioneered authentically by some brands but ultimately falling short. Outback Steakhouse’s 3 Point Bloomin’ Onion (topped with cheese fries and steak) was clearly built to get media attention. It failed to gain visitors because it just doesn’t look that good to eat.

Many viral hits across media are remixes. Music, movies, even viral videos about remixes.

For the restaurants that create the Sushi donut, initial traffic crashes the place. Traffic is the goal of major brands as well. But independents, strapped for resources, fail to capitalize by moving those there to try the viral hit onto more mainstream menu items. Major QSR, Fast Casual and Casual Dining brands have the R+D departments but somehow fail to innovate.

So, what’s different?

The Double Down success was as much a product of its curiosity inducing form as it was the media buy that gave it visibility. It was never intended to be a mainstay on the menu at KFC. But it also failed to create serious levels of demand, unlike the buffalo chicken chimichanga. These are the items that younger guests seek because they’re not only looking for unique food experiences, but they’re looking for things to share on social media.

Taco Bell is well positioned to launch a string of viral food hits. They have the food oddity gene in their DNA by virtue of the co-opted nature of their Amexican cuisine and history of flavor combinations like the Doritos Locos tacos. Taco Bell also has the top viral audience coming in daily. And now for Waffle Tacos. So why aren’t sales continuing to rise?

The food that goes viral have something else in common. Like Taco Bell, they are remixes of popular items. Sushi and Donuts for example. Unlike Taco Bell, they tend to cross culinary lines that brands locked into a corporate flavor profile have trouble finding. The cronut, maybe the item that started the viral food trend, seems simple. But French pastry techniques and good old deep fried dough had never been cross pollinated, despite sitting next to each other on New York City bakery shelves for decades.

Many viral hits across media are remixes. Music, movies, even viral videos about remixes. Fragmentation has rendered mass attention harder than ever to earn. Artists and media seek to leverage known properties, or very, very familiar ideas to draw a bigger initial audience. The easier it is to explain, the bigger the audience opportunity.

In light of the change in culture, brands need to find their own Sushi Donut that will attract initial attention, drive trial and allow for menu exploration down the road. Mixing favorite flavors is one recipe for viral success. Creativity doesn’t have to be original to be successful.

Dunkies’. Honoring your true customer.

Before you read this, watch this. SNL aired a pretty genius spoof of ads for Dunkin’ Donuts showing their ‘real customer.’ Quick recap to those who don’t care to watch. Casey Affleck stars as a Boston local giving the camera crew his real Dunkin’ experience.

This piece was shared with me by a dozen different people on five different media. Why? Because it gets to a core truth. The Dunkin’ ads focus on people in buttoned down shirts, designer glasses, drinking their premium drinks. But that’s not the customers the brand grew up with. Dunkin’ locations multiplied in blue-collar towns across New England and the northeast. Long-time customers or brand observers have noticed the moves Dunkin’ has made to steal share from Starbucks and other premium chains.

This week Quizno’s announced their investment in a premium sandwich concept – Zeps. This is a clear move to chip off some share from other sandwich brands, but also a signal. Quizno’s sees opportunity in the premium space. Somewhere above Subway’s mass appeal and budget friendly menu, maybe above Jersey Mike’s. Similar to the move Dunkin’ Brands has made over the past decade.

There’s a big difference. Customers of Dunkin’ in the late 90’s had a firm grip on the brand and understood it. Stores were woven into communities (like mine). Quizno’s never achieved such a position involving loyalty or foundational understanding. They flirted with it briefly but were never able to solidify it. Adding a premium menu or an entire premium brand won’t confuse any of Quizno’s hard core customers, because there really aren’t any. Sorry.

And this is the challenge for brands trying to expand, and why most fail at doing so. A young brand has a loyal core of fans. People who visit more than average and bring new people into the restaurant. These customers come to the place and recognize others like themselves. They become a tribe united around the brand. A tribe might be based on a type of cuisine, type of music or decor, or neighborhood. Strong brands have this early on, and figure out how to grow the tribe without alienating the original customer.

Authenticity doesn’t apply to everyone. For example, discount brands don’t have tribes. Subway doesn’t have a tribe. They don’t attract people based on lifestyle. Subway attracts based on features. Which works for them, because they have scale. When Subway adds menu items, they do so with mass audience in mind. And they ensure alignment between new items and sales. What they do not do, is roll out items that will turn off or confuse their core audience. Or worse, signal that the place is no longer for them.

Dunkin’ has successfully navigated the addition of premium coffee items that better align with the Starbucks audience than their original customer tribe. They did this by continuing most of the original items that won them those early fans. They maintained tribal authenticity by honoring the original customs. Order a ‘coffee regular’ today, and you’ll get what you got in 1995. Or 1975.

Towards the end of the SNL piece, Affleck’s character has a verbal exchange with one of the new Dunkin’ customers. The new customer looks down his nose at Affleck, “Go back to Starbucks,” Affleck screams back. Implied, we want our brand back.

Is your brand experience easy to understand?

I visit a lot of restaurant concepts to find new trends and innovations. I always note is how easy it is for a new customer to understand what they are supposed to do to enjoy their visit. Especially their first visit. Blow that one, and there may not be a second. In our research into Millennial dining habits, 58% told us they base dining decisions on past experience. It is important to get it right early and often.

Menu

This is an issue on two levels. First, choosing the menu items and names that let people understand what they are choosing from and what it will taste like. Some concepts go all in on naming conventions that don’t always set expectations. Krystal calls its regular burgers Krystals. Probably fine given the presentation of the menu and focus on that primary items. But also on the menu are variations of hotdogs called Pups and Corn Pups.

Does everything on the menu make sense together? If you’re an Asian wok-based concept like Pei Wei, adding sushi is not a far leap for the customer. Less so at a southern chicken concept. That’s pretty simple. What about new items Buffalo Wild Wings has added? The brand has done great with a straightforward menu and formula of wings, sports and beer. Do burgers make sense there, or is the brand grasping for innovation. They’ve also added a pulled pork sandwich to their menu, even further afield. Raising Cane’s has been disciplined in keeping the menu extremely tight. Time will tell if they feel the need to expand the menu when location growth slows.

Don’t underestimate the importance of menu design. QSR and fast casual brands have the burden of communicating the flavor and experience at distance and often without much conversation. At Culver’s, the menu is much more expansive than a new guest might expect, making the first visit potentially overwhelming. Is the menu organized as simply as it can be? Are there flavor cues where needed? Is the menu divided intelligently, so it can be scanned.

Footprint

This is sometimes out of your control, but a restaurant layout needs to welcome people. In casual dining, it’s important to have an area near a host’s stand for guests to gather and wait. But also to hear the music and see the sights inside the restaurant. No one likes to wait, but at least give them a chance to absorb the atmosphere and get excited to get to their seats. Texas Roadhouse does a great job with this.

In fast casual and especially QSR, give them an entry that allows them to comfortably view the menu. Even if a restaurant is as simple as Five Guys or Firehouse Subs, the first visit takes some orientation. Give people space to stand back and observe; don’t force them directly into the queue. Watch people’s first visit to a Qdoba and witness the awkward pauses, the questions, the confusion. Don’t position the menu at awkward angles that make it hard for people to read. A common mistake is posting the menu boards on the wall along the queue at chest height; the spacing makes it impossible to read.

When designing a standard footprint we maximize seating, kitchen equipment, safety. Make sure customer experience is included. Especially for new guests. How much does the layout give the guest a chance to understand the brand? Guests need to look at some of the food on other guests tables, see how they’re eating it, and what they’re combining.

Training

Does your staff know their stuff? Do they help people understand? Are they trained to explain the concept and guide people towards favorite menu items? In a perfect world, the answers to all of these are yes. But reality is far from perfection. Even with the best menus and a flawless layout, some guests just won’t read or get it. Some will want to talk to staff and test them.

Find out what the most common questions are from guests. Set up training programs to give staff the help they need to perform at this level. Secret shop to ensure a high standard is being upheld. Reward staff living up to that standard with spot bonuses or other perks.

Staff trained in explaining the experience are trained in hospitality. Executing that well turns a confusing experience into a great one.