QSR Brands Take Content Marketing to the Next Level

Guess what? Consumers know that they are being marketed to. In response to this heightened awareness, they’ve even begun to block out the traditional world of marketing. Their DVR has given them the power to skip television ads. They’ve become numb to banners when online surfing, knowing how to take in online information without becoming distracted. Instead of fighting this, brands need to embrace a new approach to marketing.

Content marketing is a technique of creating and sharing relevant and valuable content to attract and engage with a brand’s target audience. It appears less self-serving—it goes beyond traditional promotions and new product news. Instead, it’s content that is informative and entertaining that your customers truly need and want.

Many restaurant brands are already integrating this into their overall marketing strategy but only a few are doing it really well. The key to getting it right is first understanding your customers and their needs, as noted in a recent QSR Magazine article.

Joe Pulizzi, a content marketing consultant and founder of the Content Marketing Institute says many quick serves jump into content marketing and create content because there are so many channels available. “That is the worst reason in the world to create content,” he says. “You need to really figure out how each piece of content you create is going to help your customers improve their lives.”

Chipotle, the darling in the fast-casual world, best exemplifies brands that are embracing and succeeding with this approach. Ever heard of a little video called “Back to the Start” or “The Scarecrow?” These short animated videos have both been viewed over 7 million times online. The only mention of Chipotle was in the closing credits.

Beyond their success using videos, Chipotle just hosted their third annual Chipotle Cultivate Festival in Chicago, San Francisco, and Denver. The purpose of the event isn’t to sell more burritos but rather to encourage discussion about sustainability and food impact while promoting the efforts of local artists, culinary and beyond. From chef demos to family activities to indie rock performances, the event attracted tens of thousand of festival-goers.

“It’s important that any form of content marketing is used genuinely, rather than as thinly veiled advertising attempts,” says Chipotle spokesman Chris Arnold.

So take a cue from Chipotle’s playbook, make it your own with your customers in mind first and foremost, and do so with honest intentions.


QSR Insights: Papa Murphy’s Missed Dough Opportunity

PizzaWhile some stand firm on one end or the other, many of us have a love-hate relationship with cooking. I’m one that bounces around. When I have time, I love it. It’s therapeutic. But when I’m exhausted from a long day at the office, well, I’m not a huge fan.

The other night I decided to cook but with a little help from my friends at Papa Murphy’s. My husband and I were in the mood for pizza, but I wanted to put my own spin on it.

So I went into the new Papa Murphy’s location down the street and ordered a large deLITE size dough—a sign I was leaning towards the more loving end of my relationship with cooking.

After placing my order, the young guy behind the counter looked a little confused and turned to the lady next to him for guidance. She immediately stepped in to explain they don’t sell just the dough. Stunned, I jumped in to let her know that I’ve been buying the dough for years at the other location a few miles away.  The nice lady proceeded to tell me that she was from corporate, and that other store was going against policy.

As I turned for the door in complete disappointment, I started to wonder about the motivation behind their corporate policy.  Do they think their role as America’s pizza provider will diminish if they sell the dough?

I say au contraire. Restaurants, from quick serves to fine dining, that can satisfy a variety of needs and allow me to have flexibility depending on what’s going on in my life are the ones that are irreplaceable. I still go to Papa Murphy’s for those times when I’m having a more “hate” relationship with cooking, to truly just “Take ‘N’ Bake.” So why turn down the opportunity to play a part in my culinary adventure when I’m in the cooking mood?

Embrace how you fit into your customers’ lives, don’t try to control it.  You might uncover new opportunities. Papa Murphy’s could become an even bigger hero for families who want to make their Friday night extra special by creating their pizza together. By supplying the dough and a few pointers on mastering pizza making, Papa Murphy’s still remains the true pizza artist but allows for their customers to co-create.

Any healthy relationship evolves over time. So the next time your customer wants you to play a slightly different role than normal, think twice before turning them down. Otherwise, they might replace you.

Photo credit: Jessy Rone


QSR Insights: What Will We Be Talking About in 2017?

Five years, in the ever-so-quickly-advancing restaurant industry, can bring about serious change. Let me remind you all that half a decade ago, Five Guys was mostly a regional player and Chipotle was just starting to make headlines with its promise of sustainable food.

Well, a lot has changed since then. Now Five Guys is a national force in the better-burger category and Chipotle has influenced the locally grown food movement well beyond its own category.

The point is, restaurants in their infancy today could be the leaders of tomorrow, propelled by a new kind of customer—one that is dependent on social media, a survivor of the recession, and interested in global flavors.

So what’s in store for the industry in the next half-decade? According to QSR Magazine, here are five segments with major potential:

  1. The Eco-Burger—Meat-loving Americans beloved burger will go through a little transformation according to Liz Aviles, vice president of market intelligence for Upshot. Imagine an evolution from the “better burger” to the “cleaner burger.” This will not only be a burger better for your body but more eco-friendly and better for the community. Aviles went on to say that chains like Chicago-based Epic Burger will claim the moral high ground in the next five years with fewer preservatives and a strong sustainability message.
  2. Asian Meets Fast Casual—Although there are quite a few upscale Asian restaurants, there is still a market for the fast casual sector. Eric Giandelone, director of foodservice research for Mintel, compares the situation to that of Chipotle a few years ago when there was a clear divide between higher end and lower end Mexican dining options. “Chipotle kind of changed that by offering that in-between. The same is kind of true with Asian food right now,” says Giandelone. It appears that Chipotle founder Steve Ells is taking what he’s learned about Mexican food and applying it to the Asian food market with his recent launch of the fast casual ShopHouse Southeast Asian Kitchen. Similar concepts including Chutney Joe’s Indian Diner in Chicago and Merzi in Washington, D.C. have plans to expand to other markets.
  3. Fresh Juice—Aviles says Starbucks’ latest offering, the Evolution Fresh juice bar, is a taste of what we will be seeing in 2017. “Starbucks’ Evolution Fresh is a harbinger of more concepts to come,” Aviles says. “It’s a juice and food experience. I think that’s the key.” At Starbucks, the price point is high and the company is branding the experience as “super-premium,” but customers are willing to spend more if they feel that they’re doing something good for themselves as Aviles explained.
  4. Build-Your-Owns—Robotics, touch-screen ordering, and customized orders will become an increasingly conventional part of the quick-serve experience. Jeremy Umland, founder and CEO of Ozumo Concepts International launched the u-sushi concept which combines customization and technology. Modern-looking machines deliver a fresh sheet of rice as customers watch the process of their sushi being made. As restaurants continue to integrate high tech, more and more customers are going to be placing their own electronic orders and will be able to watch their food be made by robots.
  5. International Invasion—The U.S. is becoming more open to new concepts and tastes. John Gordon, president and CEO of the Pacific Management Consulting Group, and Aviles point to the changing tastes of a younger generation. Restaurants based abroad such as South African chicken restaurant Nando’s and Guatemala’s Pollo Campero, each have several U.S. locations. “In the United States, the population has become much more diverse,” Gordon says. “We are not a typical extended suburban nation anymore.”

Keep your eye on these five over the next five.

Photo credit: Mr. T in DC


QSR Insights: A New Wave of Fresh Fruit in Menu Offerings

With consumers becoming more health and weight conscious, many high-profile quick-service chains are jumping into fruit cart mode to live up to these demands and expectations.  As noted in a recent QSR Magazine article, Americans are now eating more fresh fruit than ever.  From 1980 to 2009, the average consumer went from eating 106.2 pounds of fruit annually to 127.5 pounds annually, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.

Wendy’s, Chick-Fil-A, Panera Bread, Arby’s, and Corner Bakery are a few of the many quick serve restaurants that have already jumped on the fresh fruit bandwagon. From side items to salads to smoothies, these chains are finding new ways to incorporate fresh fruit into their menu offerings.

One of the most recognizable chains—that’s better known for burgers and fries than fresh produce—decided to incorporate a side of fruit into all kids’ meals as a standard element. Although McDonald’s has offered apples as an add-on since 2004, the chain’s decision to make a bag of apple slices a consistent component of the Happy Meal further underlines the company’s broader health initiatives targeted at younger consumers.

“McDonald’s wants to help support parents in encouraging their children’s habit of eating produce at meals,” says McDonald’s USA’s family category marketing director, Molly Starmann. “By automatically including them, McDonald’s is offering parents and kids a balance of the foods that are good for them along with the foods they love.”

So if you aren’t as far ahead as McDonald’s, here are a few things to consider:

  • Many restaurants provide a limited-time option, which allows for testing the appeal of the produce offered.
  • Both the suppliers and the operators can experience great success when a restaurant finds a fruit that fits with its brand.
  • To ensure the freshness of the fruits, there are a variety of tactics operators are using.  Some choose fruits that are picked prematurely so that they ripen in transit.  Others employ the flash-freeze method to lock in the flavor and freshness.  Some are still using a variety of chemicals to keep the fruits fresh.

The fruit offering option is opening a whole new window for quick-service restaurants.  As with any other menu offering, the fruit option has to fit with the brand for the results to be successful.

The occasion is ripe to add some fruit options to your menu. Better start picking.

Photo credit: Derek Thomas


QSR Insights: High Tech Gains Popularity With Restaurants

At the annual National Restaurant Association show a couple of weeks ago, it was evident that high tech has become an increasingly bigger part of the dining industry expo, as reported by QSR Magazine.

For restaurants, new tech has helped the industry increase productivity and evolve customer service. One of the most crucial benefits is information collection.

“In one sense, it allows you to personalize customers,” says David Matthews, the NRA’s chief information officer. “As systems become more advanced, restaurants are able to reach out to them with offers and suggestions.”

Kansas City-based Front Flip offers a mobile app that has more of a marketing slant, helping restaurants drive repeat business while also rewarding frequent customers. After scanning a QR code with their phone, customers are sent a virtual scratch card with a chance to win a prize. It’s a win-win scenario. While the restaurant is collecting valuable data and the ability to interact with its guests, customers have the chance to be rewarded for their business.

With the rising popularity of smartphones, more and more restaurants are focusing their efforts on developing applications around this device. One of the most common implementations is mobile ordering and payment.

While Chipotle and Domino’s are two of the more notable pioneers in the category to venture into the mobile commerce arena, many have followed suit. T.G.I. Friday’s recently released an app named Friday’s which allows diners to open a tab, track their bill throughout the dining experience, and tap a button when they are ready to pay.

Tablet-based tabletop-ordering systems are also gaining traction. A group of MIT grads created the Presto tablet which not only allows guests to order and pay at any time but includes games to engage customers while their food is being prepared.

If you haven’t jumped on the high tech bandwagon quite yet, when considering the options be sure to ask yourself, “What value (convenience, access to information, entertainment, etc.) is it adding?” It’s not enough to just gain coolness points by incorporating cutting-edge technology.


QSR Insights: How Restaurant Brands Can Play on Pinterest

The latest darling in the social-media world, Pinterest, has become the fastest growing social site of all time. With 12 million monthly users, it’s making restaurant marketers wonder how to leverage this new platform.

There has been a shift from friend-based networks to those connecting people on their shared interests, and this newfound obsession with Pinterest clearly exemplifies this evolution. One of the major shared interests is food. What’s more social than food?

Although Pinterest is ideal for those brands in the fashion industry that can leverage the visual and e-commerce perspective, “Foodservice brands can be equally effective,” said Dan Kim, founder of Dallas-based Red Mango in a recent Nation’s Restaurant News article.

One restaurant, Tender Greens, has used Pinterest as a way to share their inspiration and communicate their philosophies. Christina Wong, an account supervisor with Murphy O’Brien Public Relations, said “Tender Greens uses their Pinterest page as an overall brand page about the Tender Greens lifestyle, what they’re doing as a company and what inspires the individual chefs.”

Dunkin’ Donuts is another brand that has jumped on the Pinterest bandwagon. After setting up an account in the beginning of February, they had more than 1,300 followers before the month ended as reported by QSR Magazine.

Nation’s Restaurant News asked three foodservice operations that are using Pinterest effectively to share their tips. Here are a few to take note of.

Dan Kim, founder of Red Mango:

Post pictures of your food: “People love seeing pictures of appetizing dishes. You can post pics you’ve taken professionally, or those that are generated by sharing communities like Instagram,” Kim said. “In fact, we ‘pin’ pics from Instagram into Pinterest. Each time someone sees a pic of your food, you remind them of your brand.

“Make sure, however, that you’re not posting ads — the pictures should be natural and real, not promotional,” he said. “Pinterest is not about selling, it’s about emotional engagement with consumers so that your brand becomes a part of their lifestyle.”

Albert Im, marketing manager of Austin-based Mama Fu’s Asian House:

Engage: “Like any social media outlet, Pinterest is a community,” Im said. “As a Pinterest user, it’s a great feeling to contribute content that others pick up and share with friends – so it’s important to reciprocate. I also make a point to involve others in our pins whenever possible, whether by sharing a moment with Mama Fu’s fans or giving a shout-out to the creators of user-generated content. Plus, what better opportunity is there to learn about the passions and interests of our fans than by engaging them on a more personal level?”

Erik Oberholtzer, chef and co-owner of Tender Greens:

Offer useful information or resources: “It’s not all about Tender Greens all the time,” Oberholtzer said. “We do share facts about our company, but we also share expert tips about what fruits and vegetables are in season, recipe ideas, sustainable design ideas, a local farmer’s market map, wedding/catering resources, craft beer reviews and even gardening/farming techniques.”

Happy pinning!


QSR Insights: The Art of Finding the Right Word

Operators will continue to drive home “fresh” and “handmade” as consumers increasingly jump on the “cleaner” food bandwagon, according to Mintel’s recent Dining Out: A 2012 Look Ahead report.

With the influences of the documentary “Food, Inc.” and public health advocates like Dr. Oz, Americans are swapping overly processed foods for foods with “clean labels” in grocery stores. Restaurant operators are also adjusting their communications to better align with this shift in consumers.

To convey “made-just-for-you,” restaurants are “adjusting their preparation techniques to demonstrate a slow, methodical process, which expands the fresh idea to include handmade and individually crafted comfort food,” as reported by Mintel.

Tex-Mex chain Taco Cabana discovered such success with their Brisket Taco that the popular LTO became a permanent fixture on the menu. The company hit on the slow, methodical process describing it as “seasoned with salt, pepper, and garlic before smoking for several hours with hickory wood flavors and then crisped on a flat grill before being served.”

Domino’s Artisan pizzasOne word restaurants are attaching to their product names is the term “artisan”; however, it doesn’t seem to be resonating with consumers as much as you might think. Interestingly, Mintel asked respondents to rate their interest in a list of descriptions/preparations. “Artisan” drew in the least interest with only 28% of respondents finding it appealing while “fresh” garnered the most interest (among 89%), followed by “made from scratch.”

Consumers are too savvy for brands to be anything but authentic. When half of the menus in the repertoire of dining establishments include some version of artisan (consider Domino’s line of Artisan pizzas, Wendy’s Artisan Egg Sandwich, and Burger King’s BK Chef’s Choice burger on a new artisanal-style bun), consumers can quickly see the term as overplayed.

That doesn’t mean that restaurants should all shift their product names to “fresh” and “made from scratch” instead. The key is a combination of an appealing name and a demonstrably appetizing preparation process.


QSR Insights: Quick Serve Trends for 2012

Even Nostradamus has been known to be off in his predictions but still experts stuck their necks out to predict what consumers will want most with a list of seven quick serve trends for the New Year. As noted in a recent article, QSR Magazine asked several category authorities what they see coming in 2012, and their responses described a new kind of consumer: one still cautious about the recession, but ready to spend again if the value is right.

While the consumer has evolved, so has the meaning of value. It’s not one size fits all. Here’s what you can expect as the year unfolds.

  1. Double-Sided Menus
    One of the biggest of the year is the double-sided menu trend as reported by Eric Giandelone, the food service director of Mintel Menu Insights. While some customers look for perceived quality, others will be driven by low prices. And whereas some look for healthy options, you’ll still have those desiring a bit of indulgence. With the multitude of needs, the quickest way to satisfy all may be to offer options on both sides.
  2. Frugal Fatigue
    Good news for operators: consumers are increasingly easing up on tightened purse strings. “It really isn’t all doom and gloom,” says Stephen Hahn-Griffths, Chief Strategy Officer of Leo Burnett. “It’s really the beginning of a change toward a better time.” It’s about consumers rewarding themselves with small indulgences. Think premium sandwiches, not caviar.
  3. New Definitions of Family
    Demographic changes are finally reaching a tipping point. The once cookie cutter “family” is no longer a reality of today’s times. Hahn-Griffiths believes chains will have to think beyond just changing out their campaign’s stock images. Alternatively, he says those “macho” companies will need to redirect their focus. From highlighting the amount of patties that can be sandwiched in between two buns to instead approaching the man as a connoisseur, this kind of shift will even give typical male-focused concepts a more universal appeal.
  4. Clean Ingredients
    Chipotle pioneered the concept of serving clean ingredients at the quick serve level. But other chains have jumped on the bandwagon of a focus on fresh, local, and organic foods, such as Burgerville and Moe’s Southwest Grill to name a few. While it’s relatively early as a trend, this kind of product sourcing will become the norm as customer awareness increases, says Chipotle spokesperson Chris Arnold.
  5. Emphasis On Handmade
    In a “hyperchoice” environment, restaurants are hoping a “homemade” approach will help differentiate from competitors within their category as well as outside. One chain noticing the positive response from guests since integrating this approach is EZ’s Brick Oven and Grill. “Customers will reward you and shop your concept if your culinary is credible,” President Suzy Monford says. “You’re going to see more fast-casual chains making more of their menu mix from scratch.” Consumers are savvy so brands must be authentic and credible in order for this strategy to work.
  6. Bargain Hunting
    While consumer confidence is up, the recession is still in the back of everyone’s mind so while spending will increase consumers will still be on the hunt for bargains. Liz Aviles, the vice president of market intelligence for Upshot says deal sites like Groupon will continue to grow in popularity as chains begin to learn what deals work for them. With consumers still promotionally driven, national brands will be smarter and more strategic about leveraging these deal sites, Aviles says.
  7. Online Ordering and Mobile Tech
    Companies will continue to integrate mobile technology and online ordering into their operations. Danny Bendas, a managing partner with Synergy Restaurant Consultants, says that both ordering and price comparisons will increasingly happen through mobile devices. Papa John’s has already made wide use of online ordering, and it’s spreading to other quick serves as well. Chains are not only taking advantage of the convenience factor but the automatic upselling capabilities. Location-based service will also become increasingly popular. “You can electronically tap people on the shoulder. You get that impulse of hunger—anything that can help you navigate is going to be a significant value,” says Hahn-Griffiths of Leo Burnett.
What’s your take on these trend predictions? So you see any other emerging QSR trends that are worth noting?


QSR Insights: Snacking Trend A Great Opportunity for Quick Serves

With “snack”-described menu items up 170 percent vs. three years ago, as found in a Mintel study last year, restaurants are taking interest and action to benefit from this growing consumer trend.

Who can be the big winner? The answer is quick serves, as the full-service format isn’t really set up for this. Increasingly, consumers are expecting quick serves to satisfy their snacking needs during nontraditional dayparts.

“We’re seeing greater consumer interest in snacking, and, not surprisingly, we’re seeing more restaurant interest in grabbing business and driving traffic during those nonpeak hours,” says Eric Giandelone, director of foodservice research at Mintel Group.

QSRs are not only adding appealing “mini-size” items to their menu (super-sizing seems to have run its course) but repositioning existing items as snacks. Most popular snack times are from 3 to 6 p.m., according to Mintel. Maybe old habits die hard. Growing up, an after-school snack felt as necessary as brushing our teeth in the morning.

While most munchers typically purchase packaged snacks from retailers like grocery stores, there is opportunity for quick serves to nibble away at their hefty market share due to the convenience factor and the ability to satisfy customer cravings, according to research firm NPD Group. Not to be dismissed is value, which is why dollar menu items are attracting snackers.

The most popular item is the American classic: fries.

As noted in a recent QSR Magazine article, operators are growing fond of the spud as their popularity and easy-on-the-wallet appeal has real potential to drive traffic during non-peak hours. Additionally, fries are as versatile as you allow them to be. They can be cut, shaped, topped, dipped and salted in endless ways, which allows more customization options for the consumer.

One quick serve ahead of the curve is Sonic Drive-In, which implemented Happy Hour (where most beverages are half price from 2 to 4 p.m.) chain-wide in 2007. Their afternoon business has reaped the benefits since adding Happy Hour.

“There’s been tremendous growth not only in terms of the drinks sold, but also in people adding on our great snacks, from our snacks menu and our everyday value menu,” says Paul Macaluso, Sonic’s vice president of marketing.

Younger consumers may be helping to drive this trend. According to “American Millennials: Deciphering the Enigma Generation,” a report from Barkley based on research conducted as part of a joint partnership with Service Management Group and The Boston Consulting Group, consumers ages 16 to 34 are more than twice as likely as 35- to 74-year-olds to grab snacks from restaurants between meals.

Another reason for the growth of snacks could be due to the prevalence of healthy options across menu boards. Commonly featured are yogurt, fruits, and smoothies such as McDonald’s Fruit ‘N’ Yogurt Parfait which has been an extremely popular snack as reported by QSR Magazine. Other operators have been adding frozen yogurt to their menus.

Some consumers might prefer savory over salty or sweet over savory when it comes to their snacking preferences. Regardless, they’re hungry and looking for you to satisfy their need for a nibble. What’s your brand’s snacking strategy?

Photo credit: Jessica Rossi


QSR Insights: Five Guys Sticks To Their Guns

Quick serves might want to take note of how one of their fast casual friend’s uncomplicated, no-gimmicks approach to feeding beef lovers is paying off. With Americans eating out less often and spending less money, Five Guys has miraculously managed to remain untouched by the Great Recession.

Over the last three years, the chain grew by about five stores per week, making it the fastest-growing chain with sales over $200 million in 2010 according to Technomic.

How did they thrive during the worst economic crisis since the Depression?

Founder Jerry Murrell and his five sons, who inspired the chain’s name, recently told QSR Magazine that “the only thing we did right was stick to our guns.”

You would probably believe that claim if you knew that Murrell refused to deliver an order of burgers to the Pentagon. They don’t deliver no matter who you are as the patriarch explained, “We don’t believe in it. We think it cheapens the product.”

Instead of expanding their menus as many of their burger competitors have done over the years, Five Guys has continued to stay loyal to what they know: meat and potatoes. They offer a frills-free menu, but one that continues to serve them well. They’ve been tempted with offers of cheaper suppliers and cheaper crops such as swapping out Idaho potatoes for faster-growing Florida and California crop but Murrell declined as “they [Idaho potato french fries] taste better” in his opinion.

While many chains have relied on hefty media schedules of “limited-time offer” messaging, Five Guys has opted to invest in their crews by paying for third-party audits that give monetary bonuses to those that get the highest marks.

“We believe the best salesperson we’ve got is the customer standing right in front of us,” says Murrell, who thinks marketing is great customer service leading to organic word of mouth.

In the recent study, “American Millennials: Deciphering the Enigma Generation” from Barkley, Service Management Group and The Boston Consulting Group, it was found that Millennials (ages 16-34) had much higher awareness of Five Guys and other emerging restaurants than older generations, which bodes well for Five Guys’ continued growth.

Although Five Guys suggests it doesn’t spend a penny on marketing and advertising, restaurant marketing analyst Joel Cohen would disagree. He refers to the burger joint’s approach as “secret marketing,” as their strategy consists of prime locations, huge portions, and in-store “Best of” posters.

Regardless of their approach, it’s no secret that whatever they are doing is working. With Five Guys’ expansion from six to 750 stores in the last decade, most would agree they are a force to be reckoned with.

Photo credit: AngryJulieMonday