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?

Category conventions in restaurant design or Why do all BBQ joints look the same?

Ever noticed that 90% of the BBQ restaurants you’ve ever been in look like they used the same interior designer? Maybe the first ones to set the tone didn’t even use a designer, but now the trend is set and being strictly adhered to by each new entry in the category. These category conventions can become a trap.

Here’s a quote from restaurateur Tyson Ho on opening a BBQ restaurant in Brooklyn: “The most annoying part of designing a barbecue restaurant is how everyone tries to pigeonhole you into looking like a Cracker Barrel or Paula Deen’s hillbilly playland. “Let’s put sawdust on the ground!” says one person. “I got these great old license plates we can hang on the wall,” says another. Every day I get offers for old wagons, rusty farm equipment, and fake vintage gas station signs.”

On one hand, category conventions are healthy. They provide cues to guests about the experience they’re about to have. People are creatures of habit and are not always willing to dive in without some understanding of what they’re about to eat. So offering some familiarity is a positive.

But how does any concept stand out from the pack when every one from Franklin Barbecue to Famous Dave’s to Dickie’s BBQ Pit are all using the same set of design standards. They’re the same in that they all sell a version BBQ, but those are three totally different experiences. Yet, Vintage styled cartoons of pigs and calls for people to “EAT” grace all three. Along with mismatched type, antique tools and neon, rusted tin signs.

“I got these great old license plates we can hang on the wall,” says another. Every day I get offers for old wagons, rusty farm equipment, and fake vintage gas station signs.”

Think about your last casual dining experiences and the design of the menu and table tents. They all follow a similar convention. Probably a condensed sans serif type punctuated with thick straight script font on top. Photos of dishes that look like there may only be one photographer in the country, each retouched to be appropriately distressed and embedded into the menu to appear ‘crafted.’

Don’t even get me started on pizza restaurants and their images of tomatoes on the vine, Sinatra and murals of Venice. The honest answer is that new concepts borrow from what has worked for successful brands before them. If the best noodle bar in town is a 900′ step in bar with an open kitchen, you can bet that the next five noodle bars to open will be 700′ – 1100′ step in bars with open kitchens. Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, but more importantly using cues guests already recognize improve comfort and sales for new concepts. Unfortunately, using those same cues sets the expectations for guests that up and comers may not be able to meet.

But some have found ways to subvert category conventions and bend it to their advantage by playing with consumer expectations. The most successful concepts we’ve seen in the past few years in Fast Casual take the best ideas from QSR and Casual Dining to set expectations. In the case of a brand like Five Guys, they offer a convention similar to QSR Hamburger restaurants, but a simpler menu and more premium food product.

Unfortunately for concepts in the Fast Casual or QSR BBQ has to match the delicious food of Franklin BBQ or even Famous Dave’s; and not just their sense of design.