Is brand heritage actually a strength?

So many new competitors. New formats. From people building out the Chipotle of _____ model to every cuisine to Eatsa re-introducing automated ordering. Every brand is innovating. And it’s working. Older brands relying on heritage are racing to keep up.

If consumers come back to Pizza Inn is it really because of its heritage?

In this NRN interview with Rave Restaurants new CEO, Scott Crane cites the heritage of Pizza Inn as a strength of the brand. It’s telling that for its sister company Pie Five, Mr. Crane cites potential for innovation as its strength. That is the challenge older brands face.

Rave has a brand on either end of the continuum. Pizza Inn has certainly faced challenges but there is potential for a rebound as pizza has remained strong as a category even through the traffic trough of 2016. Pie Five has experienced growth, along with many fast casual and pizza brands. Pizza Inn has faltered in same store sales growth and average unit volume. But if consumers come back to Pizza Inn is it really because of its heritage? Is the food better because it’s been in business for 60 years? Is the experience unique?

The question is difficult to answer because so few brands stand pat. White Castle has been working to update their brand for the past 15 years, though the food offering and experience has remained largely in tact. Why? Because people come for the food. The olde English logotype wasn’t helping draw customers, but their unique sliders still did. In n’ Out Burger has not changed many things about their experience that would be obvious to most guests. They dependably execute the same food and experience but don’t lead with heritage in their marketing. Instead, they focus on the craveable burgers. Burger King has tried to keep up with the times, but dips back into their heritage in an ironic way, such as their recurring use of The King mascot. The mascot is a symbol of their heritage, but it is in no way explicit.

Another brand that could rely on a legacy story but chooses not to is Denny’s. Instead of almost ever acknowledging their heritage in diner foods, the brand acts very young and modern. They use social media more effectively than most tweens and they explore video and non-traditional media.

People are enamored with the new. With innovation. With disruptors. The number of brand categories in which heritage is a significant advantage is shrinking. Try to name one. Automotive may have been the last stronghold, but Tesla and a dozen startup local auto manufacturers are demonstrating that heritage isn’t necessarily a consumer benefit.

Looking at certain categories in the restaurant world there are places that heritage still plays. Steakhouses have proven that longevity and reputation for procuring the choicest beef and having a unique preparation are a consumer benefit. Morton’s, Smith & Wollensky, Ruth’s Chris own a version of this by having a unique heritage. But visit Morton’s website and see that even they are more focused on the new. New dishes, a new TV tie in. They put heritage in the back seat. Is this a miss on the part of the brand? Or do they know that the brand heritage doesn’t drive visits?

Brands that do focus on heritage know one important thing. They had better deliver on that promise. If a brand like Real Mex’s El Torito asserts itself as authentic Mexican cuisine using the 60 year old recipes of its founder, the food and the experience better align with that promise. If it does, customers can be wowed. When it falls short of authentic, guests notice.

From a brand perspective, finding something unique about a company that separates it from competitors is fantastic. Heritage may be that unique element. There are pitfalls to putting a focus on heritage, especially when walking the tightrope of staying current in the age of constant innovation. The critical exercise that restaurant brands must do is explaining why that heritage is worth my dining dollars.

Waning brand loyalty means the experience curve matters

Dozens of new restaurant chains launched this year, each changing the expectation of consumers just a bit more. With more competition, it should come as no surprise that loyalty is down, or at least that brand loyalty does not mean what it once did. People take advantage of choice and offers as their budgets continue to be tight. Understanding the experience curve can help brands stem the waning tide of brand loyalty.

Is brand loyalty down? In some categories worse than others. Facebook shared a study they conducted to identify the differences between “Brand Loyalists” and “Repeat Purchasers.” Interestingly, they were able to divide up the two groups by the descriptive words they used about their favorite brands. Loyalists, it seems, use experiential words. Words like fun, friendly, clean, innovative.

New is better than known.

What is causing the change in loyalty? In a recent article in Forbes, the author ties it back to macro shifts in culture itself. Loyalty has dissolved across many parts of life, and now brands suffer as a result. An interesting read for sure. The most relevant driver listed there is “‘New’ is better than ‘Known’.” It isn’t backed by any statistics, but is inherently understandable.

For each new restaurant concept, there is a trial. People want an experience they recognize or can quickly grasp, but they do not want the same old experience. This is a shift in the experience paradigm. Quick service operations came to dominance in the 70’s and especially the 80’s by standardizing everything about their experience. Fast casuals have exploited some of those standards for better or worse. Guests are familiar with waiting in line for a hamburger at Five Guys from QSR experiences. But the true open kitchen and communication style of the staff tells guests immediately that this is going to be different.

Facebook, brand loyalty, experience, QSR, fast casual, experience curve
Brand loyalists use more experiential terms to describe their favorite brands (in orange), according to Facebook.

McDonald’s has been tinkering with their experience, to find ways to align with Fast Casuals. And some new ways to stand out. Make no mistake, McDonald’s understands they will never identify a new permanent model for experience. What they are testing is more likely how much change consumers need to feel in each experience? How similar does each visit need to be to feel familiar in a positive way? How different does each visit need to be to feel new?

There are typically three phases to the crest and fall of brands in this space. At Food & Restaurant Marketing, we call this the ‘experience curve.’

Trial phase

A guests first visits are critical to building repeat traffic and word of mouth. To survive this initial phase the restaurant has to fall in the middle of the experience curve outlined above. Some things should be familiar, some things new, zero things bad. Of course, this all presumes delicious food, well prepared.

For fast casual pizza concepts like Pie Five or Fired Pie, this is the layout of a traditional pizza restaurant. A walk-up counter that feels familiar, and visible toppings as people have become accustomed to at Subway or Chipotle. But the idea of choosing those toppings for a pizza is the twist; something new.

Comfort and exploration

In this phase, guests get more bold as they understand the concept. They have their ‘usual’ favorite items. They explore the menu and try to find new ways to enjoy the restaurant. New ways to make it their own. This might come as soon as a third visit. The guests begin to look for variations of the standard menu, or perhaps for ‘secret’ items a few more visits in.

Guest will begin probing the staff and often online for tips during this phase. This behavior is the maturation of the brand experience. But also, can lead to the next phase.

Cresting popularity

This phase may not begin for a long time. It is dependent on the ways people are able to experience and change the concept to their whims. When guests run out of new items to try, or ways to mix them up, frequency of visits begins to decline. Word of mouth slows.

The key is in extending the comfort and exploration phase by mixing up the menu and tweaking the experience. Add in new elements and take out tired ones to keep the experience fresh. Guests will reward brands who understand the experience curve.