Study: Most QSRs aren't 'cool' — why that's a problem

| by S.A. Whitehead
Study: Most QSRs aren't 'cool' — why that's a problem

Probably now more than any point in history, the restaurant business chases "cool." Cool brands are the ones in which everyone wants to be seen. It's as if a brand's level of coolness is contagious, infecting its customers and even employees with a certain "wow" factor. 

But here's the bad news for QSRs: Most brands are not cool. That's the conclusion that research consultancy — Magid —  came to after surveying 6,800 diners around 230 brands in order to understand something data-heads call "irrational commitment."

Now if that characteristic sounds a little like what happens when you fall in love, it's not a mistake because irrational commitment is essentially like customer engagement gone wild. Or, as Magid Vice President and Strategy Consultant Rick Garlick said in an interview with QSRweb, irrational commitment is marked by actions like those by customers who willingly drive miles out of their way to get that one brand's burger or those committed customers who quite literally "bleed the brand" by getting logo tattoos

Magid measured customer sentiments that fell into both the rational and the "irrational" categories because consumers' eating-out choices are a little of both. More importantly, in order to really get an accurate picture of what a brand's true "success potential" is, Garlick said any research has to measure both those types of commitment. And this is where he said a lot of the old QSRs — particularly some of the bigger brands today — run into trouble.

"Most QSRs are very practical, but ... if all you are is 'practical', you aren't going to win the hearts of diners," Garlic said. "That's why you need something beyond being just convenient for long-term growth and survival."

In the Magid analysis, two QSR brands did appear to have a level of "cool" or in Magid research lingo "vibe." Both Chick-fil-A and In-N-Out Burger performed well in these aspects, but that doesn't mean other quick-serve brands can't get their own "groove" on. So we probed further in the following question-and-answer session with Garlick to find out where QSRs stand now and where they need to go to be "one of the cool kids."

Q: Why should QSR leaders even be interested in whether their chains have that "cool" factor? I mean, what's that got to do with the business of running restaurants?
A:
More people are dining out than ever before, yet never has the landscape been so crowded. In our study, most QSR chains get rated positively on things like being convenient, quick, easy, and affordable. However, most of the major QSR chains don't get rated very highly on most other attributes we measure, including intentionality.  

In other words, the data suggest that QSRs are easily substitutable for one another, and very little emotional commitment exists.  At some point, the landscape is going to be so crowded, diner preference is going to have to become a factor for survival.  

There is a mountain of data on consumer choices that show people make emotional decisions, rather than rational decisions.  When your stomach calls, you have to eat, so sometimes dining is just a practical decision and nothing more as long as the service is fast and the food is tolerable. But the QSR that can capture emotional connection as well, is going to end up a big winner.  

Q: The study measured six dimensions of magnificence, practicality, vibe or coolness, authenticity, hospitality and food quality, but why were those six selected as key characteristics for success?

A: We began this work by looking at the things diners talked about the most. If people didn't talk about it, we didn't consider it important enough to include. ...That's how we ultimately came up with the six dimensions.

"If you know your customers, their values and how to make emotional connections, you've got a great advantage over 'vanilla' competitors."

Q: Okay, then let's get right down to it: Are QSRs cool for the most part these days? 

A: No, they aren't cool and that's a problem/opportunity. They rate very poorly, for the most part on 'vibe,' which is our 'cool' factor.  I'm sure they would argue that their business is to get people in and out, and they don't have time to worry about being 'cool.' But again, if all you are is a practical/functional QSR with tolerable food, you aren't going to win the hearts and minds of diners.  

Some have clued into this. If you look at Chipotle, which is a fast casual chain, they are focused on the whole "lifestyle" branding issue, starting with revamping the culture.  If you lack emotional connection, you are simply a "me too" option and get lost in the clutter of the QSR landscape.  

(Coolness/vibe) provides differentiation and, potentially, the ability to stand out from among others. Right now, the data shows no one will really go out of their way to eat at most of the QSR giants, with just a few exceptions, and those are the chains that are growing.

Q: So, Chick-fil-a and In-N-Out have got "it," but what is "it" in those chains? Conversely, which chains lack this quality and why?
A:
They have 'secret menus', engaging marketing campaigns, clear value statements, and interesting promotions like Chick-fil-a's Cow Appreciation Day where you get free food for dressing up like a cow.  

As for those that don't have "it"  pretty much all of the big ones including McDonald's, Burger King, Subway, Wendy's, etcetera.  They are cookie-cutter and have just slipped into blandness. They don't do anything really interesting anymore.  

Q: Based on the survey and your analysis, what would you advise QSR leadership think about when it comes to brand strategy that will amp up the chain's trendiness?
A:
Think outside of tradition and traditional marketing. It starts with culture, but also with values. I don't think many QSR workers have fun on their jobs, which also adds to the cool factor people experience.

"Cool" people add to the "cool vibe." So many QSRs focus on operational processes rather than on creating an overall experience. (To give) a non-restaurant example of a company that's "got it." Southwest Airlines.  Air travel is often torturous, but (Southwest) make(s) the experience fun and has a distinctive culture and values which translate to a unique experience for their passengers.

Q: Is this game of chasing QSR "coolness" something of a moving target in that "cool" by its very nature is always changing? 
A: 
It's like a trendy new band or artist you discover... . When they become too mainstream and everyone's listening to them, they stop being as cool.  

Think of the "secret menus" ... at Chick-fil-a and In-N-Out Burger.  When the "secret' gets out and everyone's doing it, it's no longer unique and novel. You have to keep coming up with the "next new thing."

Q: And speaking of the next new thing, how big a role does restaurant technology and social media play in all this?
A:
Technology and social media play big roles, but I think for different reasons. I'm a bit concerned that technology will just speed up the experience and/or disintermediate employees and customers.  

One can argue there are positives with this, but I often worry about technology detracting from the overall experience. Many QSRs are moving toward kiosk models of ordering. As long as there are people around to welcome people and create fun interactions, this can be okay.  

As for social media, it's just one more way to engage people with the brand, which is never a bad thing. Social media is a great way to market "insider" promotions like the secret menus.  

Q: Finally, can a brand "try too hard" in its efforts toward this kind of "cool"? If so, how would you advise that leadership keep a check on those efforts?

A: The best advice is to know your customer and why they come to you. For QSRs, most come because its quick, easy and convenient.  

You don't have to detract from those things to put in a subtle cool. Any person or brand can try to act too cool, and not have it work well.  But if you know your customers, their values and how to make emotional connections, you've got a great advantage over "vanilla" competitors.

I would just reiterate the importance of culture. 'Cool' starts from within.  Effective branding begins from the inside out.  If you have a fun culture focused on customer and employee values, "cool" will follow. It isn't just about putting up loud signs and having attention-grabbing marketing. It's about being true to who you are and making guests feel like they are welcome in your home.  

Rick Garlick photo: Courtesy Magid

All other photos: iStock 


Topics: Burger/Steak/BBQ, Business Strategy and Profitability, Chicken, Customer Service / Experience, Loyalty Programs, Marketing / Branding / Promotion, Online / Mobile / Social, Product Reviews, Self-Ordering Kiosks, Staffing & Training, Systems / Technology



S.A. Whitehead

Award-winning veteran print and broadcast journalist, Shelly Whitehead, has spent most of the last 30 years reporting for TV and newspapers, including the former Kentucky and Cincinnati Post and a number of network news affiliates nationally. She brings her cumulative experience as a multimedia storyteller and video producer to the web-based pages of Pizzamarketplace.com and QSRweb.com after a lifelong “love affair” with reporting the stories behind the businesses that make our world go ‘round. Ms. Whitehead is driven to find and share news of the many professional passions people take to work with them every day in the pizza and quick-service restaurant industry. She is particularly interested in the growing role of sustainable agriculture and nutrition in food service worldwide and is always ready to move on great story ideas and news tips.


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