Don’t bury Fast Food yet.

Cancel the funeral for fast food. When McDonald’s revealed their same-store sales growth and revenue for the first financial quarter of 2017 this past April, the numbers surprised even their own CEO. In just a few months, the golden arches earned $5.68 billion in sales (beating their $5.53 billion expectations) and their domestic same-store sales growth had risen 1.7 percent, a far cry from the 0.8 percent decline the company had anticipated.

In a dining landscape that more and more frequently favors fresh, local ingredients and farm-to-table menu concepts, these numbers are thrilling for the overcrowded and much-maligned fast food industry. Such growth is a reminder to other fast food restaurant chains that in an age where customers have more dining options than ever, the industry must think outside the box in order to set themselves apart. For McDonald’s, that means focusing on four pillars (menu innovation, store renovations, digital ordering and deliver) in order to retain long-time customers and re-introduce themselves to consumers that moved on a long time ago.

In their successful first quarter of 2017, McDonald’s attempted to capture attention in an increasingly overcrowded marketplace with big announcements and enticing limited time offers. The company announced that they would no longer be serving frozen beef patties on their burgers (something other burger juggernauts like Wendy’s have been claiming to offer for years). McDonald’s also rolled out three different sizes of their classic Big Mac, offered $1 soft drinks and $2 McCafe beverages, and expanded all-day breakfast offerings. In other words, smart uses of LTOs and a commitment to healthier options, along with the value and convenience that a fast food restaurant represents, are doing their part to save Ronald and his pals from extinction.

The industry isn’t slowing down; if anything, they’re doing everything they can to grow, evolve and stay relevant.

How fast food keeps getting off the mat

A huge part of the fast food industry’s success on both global and domestic levels is the familiarity and comfort the restaurants provide. Consumers can walk into the Pizza Hut down the street from their house or one in Hong Kong, for example, and have a similar experience; they know what they’re getting themselves into. In an age where consumers have so many choices, that comfort can go a long way. The reasons fast food became a dominant part of the food landscape in the first place hold true – people want food quickly and cheaply. It doesn’t matter if that food is processed or higher in calories than a health-conscious population would perhaps like it to be.

Such reasons, and many others, are why the U.S. fast food industry grossed $200 billion in 2015. That is a far cry from the $6 billion the industry earned back in 1970. The industry isn’t slowing down; if anything, they’re doing everything they can to grow, evolve and stay relevant. That desire for relevancy includes going after the most coveted marketing demographic: millennials. Fast food chains have joined the home delivery bandwagon, partnering with companies like Postmates to bring their cheap and convenient eats to consumers’ homes.

Don’t bury me, I’m not dead yet.

Recently, McDonald’s released some inspired advertising targeting that same demographic. The company tapped actress Mindy Kaling (the internet’s best friend) to star in a series of commercials. The twist? The ads never once mention the name of the restaurant they’re promoting, focusing instead on aspects of the recognizable brand that we know to be true. The ads prove that McDonald’s has the name recognition and savvy to evolve with the times and make their case for continued relevancy.

McDonald’s recent successes are proof that the fast food industry is not dead, nor is it going anywhere anytime soon. The upward tick in the industry will likely continue, but only if restaurants take big steps to change and grow with the dining landscape. What’s gotten them this far won’t take them any farther, and the industry would do well to remember that.

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.