3 things restaurant brands better learn from Brandless. Fast.

There’s been a ton of coverage of Amazon over the past few months. First, they bought Wholefoods. Then they announced a meal delivery service almost immediately. While all that was going on, a few articles appeared about a company called Brandless. If you haven’t yet heard about it, the company is founded on several important beliefs which you need to understand if you want to compete today.

1. Everything they sell at Brandless is $3.

It’s simple because customers hate complexity. Everything – everything – on their site today is available for $3. There’s nothing to think about. Handsoap? $3. Coffee K-cups? $3. Mustard? $3.

2. Brandless turned lack of grocery distribution from a weakness into a strength.

This is classic disruption. Knowing that it’s next to impossible to get broad product lines into grocery chains, they instead focused on direct distribution. This not only allows them direct access to their customers – they don’t have to trust grocery staffers to help sell the product or protect the experience – they also realized they didn’t have to account for the retailer mark-up. Hence Point 1.

3. Brandless rendered lack of brand awareness meaningless.

By choosing the name Brandless along with a generic look and feel they’ve risen above the marketing fray. They’ve said we can’t compete against hundred year old brands on their terms, so we’ll fight by diminishing the importance of ‘brands.’

This is a coup. Brandless appeals to younger consumers that are less loyal, especially to legacy brands. It makes of its products certified organic, gluten free, non-GMO, vegan, no added sugar and certified kosher to make sure it is all inclusive. To be fair, this is a well executed gimmick, albeit a clever one. Look for a company like Amazon to purchase Brandless in the next 18 months.

OK. So how does this relate to the restaurant business?

Reduce barriers to purchase.

They are starting with products that reduce barriers to consumption. By making products that cut out sugar, GMO and non-vegan ingredients, they’re making it easier to buy them. They built it this way from scratch, intentionally. Today’s younger consumers don’t start with a baseline expectation that things don’t fit their requirements. They demand products that meet their needs. Especially food. Make it hard to meet their dietary needs and they’re not coming back.

Don’t make consumers think about prices.

Second, they made pricing super simple. In the grocery store, people hate the way stores force them to compare prices. Especially since young consumers are more likely to shop at multiple stores to achieve their regular grocery shopping. Pricing in restaurants it’s not much different. They want it to be obvious that the price is fair for what they’re getting. Can you make everything on your menu $3? Probably not. But could you stand to streamline pricing? Definitely. Make it easy to understand.

Control the experience.

How many times will you read that the experience is all-important to consumers? For most brands, one time too few. Brandless controls every part of the experience. Consumers buy and receive products directly from them. This is an advantage over brands that are at the mercy of retailers to present the brand correctly, or next to a competitor that makes them look favorable. People choose everything from taxis, to musicians and now toilet paper based on the experience. What are you doing to improve the one you offer?

Brandless is currently selling CPG space and coming after established brands. It probably has nothing to do with your business if you are in the restaurant space. One thing we have learned from the digital disruption of the past 15 years is that a successful business model is replicated in every other sector. Soon, someone will launch an unbranded restaurant concept that reduces barriers, offers simple pricing and a controlled, positive experience. Today, you have a chance to pre-empt the success of that concept. Tomorrow? Who knows.

Service isn’t a traffic driver, it’s an expectation

Reading through some recent research conducted for brands has produced a resounding ‘Meh’ on the topic of service. The research, which is confidential, was deployed to identify clear drivers for an expanding brand. Though respondents rated the service above average and added many positive notes in the open ends, it is obvious that they don’t come to this brand for the service. And that they had a certain expectation from the category.

In research conducted by F&RM, service quality ranked second to ‘past experience’ for selecting a restaurant. Curiously, ‘friendly wait staff’ was sixth. We determined at that time that accuracy and efficiency are more important than friendliness. We also determined that the contrary to understanding, friendly does not equal quality.

There is so much focus on service in training. And it is absolutely important. Training staff in the finer points of service and making sure guests have a great experience is critical. Especially since past experience is the number one criteria for selecting their next restaurant.

But where does service actually fit in the experience? This is the tricky part for training in service. And also for guests in assessing service. If the server is busy and forgets to bring the check, that might be bad service. Where is the line? If the kitchen sends an incorrect order, the guest interprets that as bad service too.

Even when the service is flawless, it still doesn’t drive traffic. Guests expect a level of service. That expected level shifts with the restaurant and with the category. But they still walk into each meal with some ideas of how they will be treated. They expect a clean table (that doesn’t wobble). They expect the person they communicate with to know the menu and understand what they are ordering. They have an expectation of the time the order will take to prepare and get to their table. A guest’s positive experience in one in which everything goes off without a hitch.

An extremely positive experience, ie. memorable, is one in which the restaurant over-delivers on that expectation.

Even for the best operators it is a challenge to meet the ever rising consumer standard. People are spoiled for experiences, and brands invest ever more in improving them. But if brands hope to consistently create memorable experiences, this is what they’re up against. Expectation.

So brands are caught in a trap. Because consumers believe that anything less than the expectation they have should be met. Just to get them in the door. And a million things out of the control of an operator can ruin that expectation. Anything short, and they’re not back. Overachieve, and set the bar higher for future visits.

The key for brands is in how they manage those cases in which something goes awry. Most operations training focuses on creating the positive, managing to the average. For brands with hopes of keeping up in the experience economy that we’re now living in, the focus should shift to managing for negative. As communications teams have a plan in place for crises, so operators should have a plan for the millions of little ways a visit can go wrong.

Since most of those incidents are not unique, there’s no reason that they can’t be accounted for in training. Equip servers and counter staff with the tools to react – or even plan for – errors in operation. As we all know, most guests are annoyed with the problem, but grow more frustrated with poor handling of the initial mistake. Training for this can help meet the expectation.

Even the table is part of your brand.

Like you, I’m exposed to plenty of ads and messaging from suppliers and vendors around the restaurant industry. This week, I saw an email from the manufacturer of a table base system. It said something like ‘a wobbly table hurts your brand.’ At first I shrugged it off. But I came back to the email a few times. I found something about the idea surprisingly true.

I’ve written before about the ways proactive brands can improve experience for guests over a series of visits. Experience. That word keeps popping up. It’s inconsistently understood. In the restaurant industry, we should consider replacing the word ‘experience’ with its predecessor: ‘brand.’

Honestly, which part of the experience is excluded from your brand? The ‘experience’ is meant to be the physical and emotional manifestation of the brand. Of course a wobbly table reflects on the experience. It’s indicative of the care put into your guest’s visit. In a sit down environment, a wobbly table sets the tone.

When we think about brand, we think about emotion. Some things are taken for granted (or – table stakes, sorry.) The table is an obvious example. A wobbly table is a distraction, “If this table is off kilter, what else did they miss?” What else is taken for granted by guests? Food. Service. Cleanliness. Beverage. If it is a repeat visit, maybe music or atmosphere. Essentially everything.

Which part do you think doesn’t reflect back on the brand? More important question. Which part do you think your best customer is willing to let go? As an operator, we understand all the millions of things that can go wrong with any particular visit. On top of labor, service issues, food prep, and the basics of having a running restaurant – all within the guidelines of a master brand – we have to make sure the tables don’t wobble?

Yes.

But only if you want the optimal experience for your guest. More importantly, how does a server or staff member react when the guest complains about the table? This is where the small problem may become magnified. Because you cannot guarantee that no table will ever wobble across your entire system, training staff to handle that complaint with a smile is all the more critical.

We’ve seen that customers are almost expecting some small mishap with their meal or experience. Most (no, not all) people are polite when bringing that first complaint. The brand isn’t tainted for them when the table wobbles. It becomes tainted when the wobbly table becomes a story about how the brand let them down, when things weren’t improved.

For years, people have been reading that “the customer has control.” That is obviously overblown. It’s a misnomer because the customer does have some control of the choice they make. But the brand has control over the details and managing experiences. The customer didn’t undercook the chicken or make the table wobble. The customer takes control when those things aren’t remedied to their satisfaction by not coming back. Or worse, writing a review.

Remember above – we replaced the word ‘experience’ with the word ‘brand.’ Now replace the word ‘table’ with the word ‘brand.’ Each of these components are an important part of your brand. The more you believe the guest experience is a differentiator for you, the more you need to take back control of those details. Because the table is the brand. Wobbly or not is up to you.

Credit to Flattech for inspiring this article. They were in no way compensated and did not participate in the content.