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?

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.

Another Challenging Year for Restaurants

If you thought 2016 was challenging you better hold on. 2017 is not poised to get better. Even with Republicans controlling both the Congress and White House and the opportunity for reduced regulatory burden on businesses, the outlook is tough for a host of competitive reasons and a continued over supply of eateries.

Chicago-based NPD expects restaurant industry traffic to remain stalled in 2017. Traffic to dine-in brands AKA casual dining, will continue to fall at a rate of 2%. They do however bode slightly better for quick serve brands with traffic projected to grow 1%, hardly a panacea in light of the expanded competition from grocery. And to further cloud the traffic picture, gas prices are projected to continue to rise again.

Innovation is critical to continued success and a way to stay competitive.

Consumers’ apetites for dining out continue to be stymied by the prepared foods industry. And the competition is not just coming from traditional grocery stores. Increased options and improved quality at C-Stores will continue to provide viable options for consumers. Take into consideration the attractive value proposition of better quality, more options, less expensive and convenience and you have a cadre of tough competitors for share of stomach.

So what’s a quick serve and any dine-in brand to do? First and foremost make sure to deliver on the basics. Create superior dining experiences. Immaculate restaurants and food quality are ways to win consumers for that next dining out occasion. Our research shows how important the customers the last visit plays into future decisions on a return visit to the same brand. Training or retraining staff to surprise and delight the customer is an inexpensive way to deliver that superior dining experience.

Innovation is critical to continued success and a way to stay competitive in a challenging environment. And I’m not talking about building an app. App downloads are down significantly as people are demanding apps that provide utility and it’s unlikely a restaurant brand can provide the kind of utility Uber provides, which is the standard by which most apps are judged. Instead, consider innovation on your menu with flavors from the season or capitalize on popular flavor profiles that consumers crave. Millennial customers are fond of bold interesting flavors you can’t find just anywhere.

Test different options in a few units before rolling out to the entire system. Our research show customers love the opportunity to weigh in on what their favorite brand is testing. Utilize a high performing store with a strong manager, this guarantees a meaningful test that can be replicated over and over. It also helps refine the preparation and presentation for a highly effective roll out.

We are also seeing technology playing a key role in innovation. Although probably the more expensive route it’s necessary to stay ahead of the curve on collecting critical data to analyze and leverage to better understand your customer’s habits and behavior. Once you know who your best customer is and what they like you can leverage that information to go get more of them.

Mobile ordering is growing exponentially and if having that feature makes sense for your brand make the investment. We are seeing many brands generating significant incremental sales and ROI on mobile ordering by leveraging intelligent upsell opportunities.

It’s not the apocalypse but these are challenging times for restaurant brands and prepared food in general. You’ve been in business a while now and you know it’s cyclical. Stay focused on the fundamentals of delivering great hospitality. Innovation is critical to staying competitive and technology will keep you ahead of the change curve.