The viral hype is on menus, not memes.

Every day it seems that there is a new viral sensation sweeping your social media feed. No, not the latest OK Go video, DJ Khaled snap or Kardashian whatever they do. Think food. First it was the Pinterest-ready cupcakes rendered in beautiful pastels. The next big thing was macarons. Then the cronut became a standout solo hit. Giant pizza slices. Brisket burrito. It feels like these new items hit the internet daily. Because they pretty much do.

Each new item attracts visitors to the restaurant, along with Likes, shares and clicks. And most of these items are the creations of independent restaurants. But major brands don’t fire off crave-worthy novelties at the same pace. Sure KFC had the Double Down, and now sister brand Taco Bell has the Naked Chicken Chalupa (look familiar?). But by-and-large, these items are few and far between.

They usually play like novelties invented just for the press release. Gimmicks like the Panera Bread “secret menu” attempt, designed to ride the success pioneered authentically by some brands but ultimately falling short. Outback Steakhouse’s 3 Point Bloomin’ Onion (topped with cheese fries and steak) was clearly built to get media attention. It failed to gain visitors because it just doesn’t look that good to eat.

Many viral hits across media are remixes. Music, movies, even viral videos about remixes.

For the restaurants that create the Sushi donut, initial traffic crashes the place. Traffic is the goal of major brands as well. But independents, strapped for resources, fail to capitalize by moving those there to try the viral hit onto more mainstream menu items. Major QSR, Fast Casual and Casual Dining brands have the R+D departments but somehow fail to innovate.

So, what’s different?

The Double Down success was as much a product of its curiosity inducing form as it was the media buy that gave it visibility. It was never intended to be a mainstay on the menu at KFC. But it also failed to create serious levels of demand, unlike the buffalo chicken chimichanga. These are the items that younger guests seek because they’re not only looking for unique food experiences, but they’re looking for things to share on social media.

Taco Bell is well positioned to launch a string of viral food hits. They have the food oddity gene in their DNA by virtue of the co-opted nature of their Amexican cuisine and history of flavor combinations like the Doritos Locos tacos. Taco Bell also has the top viral audience coming in daily. And now for Waffle Tacos. So why aren’t sales continuing to rise?

The food that goes viral have something else in common. Like Taco Bell, they are remixes of popular items. Sushi and Donuts for example. Unlike Taco Bell, they tend to cross culinary lines that brands locked into a corporate flavor profile have trouble finding. The cronut, maybe the item that started the viral food trend, seems simple. But French pastry techniques and good old deep fried dough had never been cross pollinated, despite sitting next to each other on New York City bakery shelves for decades.

Many viral hits across media are remixes. Music, movies, even viral videos about remixes. Fragmentation has rendered mass attention harder than ever to earn. Artists and media seek to leverage known properties, or very, very familiar ideas to draw a bigger initial audience. The easier it is to explain, the bigger the audience opportunity.

In light of the change in culture, brands need to find their own Sushi Donut that will attract initial attention, drive trial and allow for menu exploration down the road. Mixing favorite flavors is one recipe for viral success. Creativity doesn’t have to be original to be successful.

Force of Habits

Heading into a new year, we tend to think a lot about our habits. Some are good, some less so. Some can be changed. Some we wish could be. Of course all restaurant brands would love to believe that visiting their locations a habit. It likely isn’t. Instead, think of habits as a behavior carried out repeatedly by individuals or groups of guest.

Customer acquisition is a huge investment of time and of money. Winning new customers is so hard, brands have to find ways to create reasons for repeat visits. We know that a small percentage of loyal customers can create the majority of revenue by having a higher lifetime value (LTV). But light and super light users make up 47% of customers on average according to NPD.

Some brands strive to create these repeat generating habits. But regular customers may already have habits that are closely integrated into their visits. These habits can become powerful reinforcement for positive experiences and almost a draw unto themselves. Watching consumers repeat these behaviors can unlock insights into what they like about the brand. Sharing these habits with light users can actually drive occasions.

Gathered together, individual quirks become trends.

A very common habit that has rituals attached to it is coffee. People have a thousand different types of orders and millions of ways to mix their coffee. Splenda, skim, Sweet N Low, cream, whole sugar, half and half, vanilla, stir. That preparation for coffee drinkers is a ritual behavior that is as much a part of the beverage as the actual consumption. Or more. Watch a person making coffee in a new environment or without their favorite additions try to reconcile the challenge.

At the QSR level, frequent visitors have a habit around their tray. Watch patrons closely and observe how each person organizes the items on the tray. Where they place the food, how they move the containers and wrappers, where they put their sauce. These habits are very telling. Tray set up shows how people prioritize and align the food.

For all restaurants an easy way to detect habits are by looking at custom orders. Are customers regularly removing an ingredient to an item or dish? This might be an opportunity to strike it permanently, or replace it with something they’ll like better.

Is there an odd component consistently being added to item? Coleslaw is now a common sandwich topping, but that came out from a small number of people who started the practice and shared it. Finding an item like that could unlock a new menu item, entree or hidden menu.

This behavior is particularly true with beverages. The Coca-Cola Freestyle machine has created a cult that allows people to truly customize their drink to the meal they’re having. Sonic has done a similar thing with their secret drink menu consisting of unique combos that keep people coming back and more importantly, talking.

A look at the purchase data can tell us which items lead to the purchase of other items. Identify uncombined products that groups of people order together. These are habitual meals that customers already enjoy. These can be offered together as a custom LTO through a loyalty program, or an item may be offered individually to drive purchase of it accompaniments.

We tend to think about habits as individual quirks. Gathered together, individual quirks become trends. We can learn a lot about our customer base as a whole by investigating the trends of our top customers.