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.

Light users and the long-tail of your customer base

So much of a restaurant brands marketing energy is dedicated on the heaviest users. Obviously, focusing on the smaller percentage of customers that drives the majority of sales makes sense in a mass media environment.

Good news, bad news. The mass media environment no longer applies to most brands. Enter the long-tail. By the end of the dot com era it was clear that anyone with an interest in an obscure subject could find the content to satisfy them. Apple’s iTunes store offered people the chance to find and explore tons of music they would have never heard about on FM radio. And dozens of publications like Pitchfork sprung up to feed interest in lesser known artists.

Top 40 pop radio still reaches the broad majority of music listeners. The obscure tracks occupy the long-tail following that the majority. Starting in the early 2000’s, marketers developed long-tail strategies aimed at capturing attention from those interested in long-tail subjects.

For example, a customer who always orders veggie items should be offered pork sliders.

When mass media budgets aren’t viable for a restaurant brand, the long-tail strategy can be flipped to apply to light users of the brand. A typical long-tail strategy aims to align the brand to content that reaches fewer people who are more engaged and passionate about what they’re reading. Digital media targeting makes this simple to execute.

For restaurant brands, the light users are the long-tail. The lower their visit frequency, the further out on the tail they are. By NPD estimates, light users make up just under half of all restaurant occasions. Media targeting still applies, but restaurant brands can target them more directly. Anime, non-GMO farming, Lars Von Trier films. These are examples of interest groups that might appear in a long-tail brief. Media would be targeted towards digital publications and content focused on these topics. In the case of restaurant brands, the interest groups are around specific menu items, LTOs or price points that interest them. Brands have the data to know what items individuals love, and not just the most frequent customers.

Loyalty programs and apps are geared towards the reward for many visits or purchases. But to attract light users, create incentives that are smaller but more specific to the individual. Instead of starting the program with a known reward, create a reward based on the initial purchase. A customer orders an Italian sub, offer them a discount on their next Italian sub.

Beyond that example, brands should respect customers enough to offer something relevant. If exact preferences aren’t known, start broad but custom. For example, a customer who always orders veggie items should be offered pork sliders. A customer that frequently buys kid’s meals might not want an alcohol based offer. Extend the length of redemption based on that customers frequency.

A brand can also offer a win-back reward based on the length of time from registered visit. A reasonable time frame might be 1.5x the average duration between visits of all customers. If your average customer visits twice monthly, offer a light user a discount at three weeks. Offer a richer reward at six weeks.

Simple technology can be used to quickly assess and create custom rewards based on a pre-set group of qualifiers. The user specific (but not personal) data consumers provide can be used to make them happier – and more frequent – customers.

Comparison shopping. Brands are tested against a wide array of experiences.

If you kept a dining journal you might be surprised at the varied names that appeared. People don’t have a loyalty to most restaurant brands. Never mind a single dining format. Know anyone that goes exclusively to fast casuals and never sits down at a casual dining establishment? Know anyone that truly avoids every type of QSR?
People have a wide array of options and a larger pool of comparison.

No, if you looked back at the location data stored in your phone, you would find something surprising. People choose restaurants of all shapes and sizes depending on a variety of factors. F & RM has examined this in our study. Beyond restaurants, people eat or purchase meals at convenience stores, gas stations, food courts, kiosks, family entertainment centers and theaters. How does your brand stand up to the comparison?

If you launch a restaurant brand today and hope to identify a tight group of competitors, think again. A concept like Studio Movie Grill is offering something no other casual dining place can; first run films. C-stores have upgraded their food offering. It’s on par with many QSRs and some even survive comparison to Fast Casual. Brands like Pizza Hut have softened the entry point on the pizza category through their entry in to QSR and drive-thru formats. Brands like Hunt Brothers and Quick Trip have a solid quick serve pizza offering. The middle ground is shrinking.

Each restaurant brand is used for a different range of purpose. It solves a different problem for the customer. We add more potential solutions for each situation or day part. The comparison between the solutions for each day part is natural. How does my quick morning pick up will go? Starbucks, Quick Trip, Dunkin’ Donuts, Panera Bread, the local deli. Which best meets the need?

But it doesn’t stop there. Food is sensory. Service is emotional. Both of these elements create lasting memories for customers. Those memories aren’t constrained by rationality. People do compare the pizza they got from a drive-thru to the great pizza they got at a family restaurant. They absolutely do. How do you suppose that comparison ends for Pizza Hut?

How about customers of places like Jimmy John’s or Capriotti’s? They like the brand, they understand the experience. They know how the prices of each align and how long each takes. Then they go to a convenience store and pick up a surprisingly good ready-to-eat sub on a road trip. That experience is marked in their mind the next time they go into one of those sub shops. The value and food quality are now subject to a new comparison. Is it better than the c-store sub? Is it two dollars better?

In this context, think about casual dining customers. Even a loyalist of Applebee’s will run a similar comparison to food quality when they have a good prepared meal from their grocery store. Again, they do the math on the cost and ask, “Is the service and a soda worth that?”

When we price in service on top of COGS we price against similar concepts. We look at the other brands that look just like us. So often, brands limit their competitive set to only ‘like’ concepts. It’s time to expand on that. Because that’s what customers are doing.