Fast Food Brands Are Struggling To Meet Consumer Values

A close up of crisp; spicy chicken wings, also known as hot wings, with ranch dipping sauce.
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Brands are simply a perception held in the mind of customers. It’s not about what they say they are, it’s about what customers think they are, argues uberbrand’s Dan Ratner.

The fast food market is fiercely competitive, with several giant brands traditionally dominating. This has made it very difficult for new brands to gain traction. As consumer values shift, this is changing. Australia has a strong food culture and the proliferation of food and cooking shows has given consumers greater awareness of what they’re eating. With consumers enjoying a wider range of options and foods that were previously thought of as exotic, now table staples.

As a result many traditional fast food brands are struggling to meet new consumer values. These changing values are creating a more competitive landscape with the rise and emergence of new brands like Nando’s, Guzman Y Gomez and Grill’d. These brands are tapping into contemporary values through product, experience and communication.

It’s difficult for heritage brands to adapt to these changing customer profiles and consequently, the category is at a crossroads. As the traditional giants risk losing relevance in context to shifting consumer values, it may be time to rethink target markets and attract audiences in a different way.

To better understand this shift in values, uberbrand recently commissioned market research into how customers think about fast food brands. The research found that emotion and, more specifically, memory, play a huge role. Certain brands trigger certain emotional memories in an audience. Tapping into and reinforcing these feelings and emotions are essential for establishing and maintaining a strong, successful brand.

The research asked people about their favourite memories of visiting fast food restaurants. One third of respondents said visiting fast food restaurants with their family was their best memory. With a large percentage of people’s best memories from when they were younger than 15 years old. Further qualifying research suggested that these positive memories were based around enjoying bonding time with their parents as a child.

Overlaying this into Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs reveals some deeper opportunities. The theory cites love and belonging as some of the fundamental human needs. Belonging is generally established early in life (with esteem and self-actualization often coming later). It seems family visits to fast food restaurants as children, establishes an association with this need for belonging.

Maslow's hierarchy of needs

Maslow’s hierarchy of needs

Interestingly a quick review of traditional fast food advertising shows brands looking to appeal to the higher order needs of esteem or self-actualisation. Focusing on self-actualisation based needs in terms of both product development and communications, like many fast food companies do, may be a mismatch. Bonding is a deeper and potentially more powerful need to appeal to.

Many of the people who bonded over traditional brands with their families when they were younger now have their own children. Shifting values toward food has them choosing alternative brands then those they enjoyed as a child. The consequence is that their children too may instead build bonds with these other brands.

The risk for traditional brands is that if they don’t find ways to establish connectivity with younger generations then as the population ages the bonding link is broken and they will lose relevance.

1. Consider shifting focus away from representations of esteem

Far fewer respondents associated their best memories with time spent with friends at fast food restaurants, yet so many fast food advertisements repeatedly show scenes of esteem represented through the association of their brand with youthful confidence; using imagery of friends (sitting on the beach) enjoying an informal meal together. This is a very aspirational take on how some people might enjoy fast food. It is contradictory to the research, and not the most effective representation of the core category need. It’s clear to see through their communications, sponsorships and product placements, that fast food brands are looking to associate their brands’ with esteem. As we have identified, they should instead perhaps consider incorporating belonging.

2. Get back to basics

There is a trend for big brands to focus on product innovation to meet the changing market. While innovation can be important, it may have negative mid to long term effects. Over-innovation can cause brand fragmentation and confusion, undermining the credibility of the brand and its core offer. Indeed, being in an ‘innovation spiral’ – continually coming up with new flavours and menus can be a key indicator that a brand is in trouble. It is indicative of innovation trying to plug holes left from losing relevance. Contemporising products around belonging rather than esteem may be needed to capture evolving consumer values.

The folding of Pie Face is an example of a fast food brand that tried to oversaturate a simple offer with product innovation. It continually added new flavours of fillings while missing the role pies play in the lives of their customers.

So, what can fast food brands do about it?

Most fast food brands will be able to turn around their fortunes, but they must take a different approach. Success starts with deeper understanding of how emotional rewards satisfy consumer needs and build loyalty.

The evidence shows that fast food facilitates bonding experiences, filling a powerful need in people. Successful brands know exactly how they want their customers to feel and they reflect this in every aspect of their brand – from their product, menu and experience through to advertising and communications.

Creating emotional branding can be challenging for fast food brands due to the commoditised nature of the products – but it is possible. For example, Coca Cola has shifted from big-splash advertising to a more personalised and emotive approach in order to re-establish relevance with their audience. For the highly successful “share-a-coke” campaign the company developed cans with various first names printed on them. This connected consumers to the brand and encouraged sharing on social media. Consumers actively wanted to find a can with their name on it so they had something that felt personal and unique to them. Memories of bonding experiences are personal and unique too but fast food companies need to find ways of taking advantage of this.

Fast food brands could be in danger of being blinded by short-term objectives, risking losing sight of what their customers truly think and feel about them in context to the category. Focusing on esteem, using young friendship groups in their communications or constantly innovating may cloud their ability to deepen and broaden their relevance.

To build brand loyalty and long-lasting relationships, brands must understand how their offering delivers its emotional reward for customers. The first step should be to find out whether they have an accurate view of how their brand satisfies needs, and then mapping the unique way it delivers this through their brands’ positive emotional rewards.

Dan Ratner is the managing director of branding and communications agency uberbrand. 

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