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Taco Bell explains why 2015 won’t be like 1984.

McDonald’s is Big Brother to people in fast food. Got it.

Chipotle got people to watch long-form ads about their cause. Got it.

Taco Bell has been tearing it up in social media and content creation the last few years. Yes.

My only thing about this…

…is that it doesn’t quite have the same spirit as the other Taco Bell social media greatest hits. Ignoring its resemblance to the famous Apple 1984 ad, and the fact that the cause is a lot more “advertising strategy-ish” than Chipotle’s Back-to-the-Farm-Basics longform ads, this ad just isn’t very fun. Is it? Even though I enjoy Soviet propaganda and Joker-ish clown makeup and the poke of a sort-of-big-guy at a bigger guy (a little), I feel the oppressive atmosphere is very effective. Because it’s oppressive. Will people really watch the whole thing?

To me, this is an example of different visions for a single entity: you can detect different creative sensibilities between this, the army of Ronalds, the Locos Tacos ethos, and so on. And a different sensibility from their best tweets.

It’s hard to be consistent across every medium. But it’s kind of a big deal. People only know what they see, and if what they see (as discussed in Selling Eating “Chapter 7: Brand Personality: A Consistent Voice Is A Sneaky Advantage”) varies from one touchpoint to another, they start to wonder if they ever really knew the brand at all.

Today, Gloria the Random Chicken Decider hopefully reinforces Burger King’s brand (rather than randomly pecking away at it).

A Chicken named Gloria is a Burger Exec now

A few hours from now, a random chicken named Gloria will randomly decide if a particular New York Burger King location will serve Chicken Fries.

I like this direction for Burger King.

They’ve been suffering a long time with this dysfunctional half-hip/half-drip personality disorder, where they bring back Subservient Chicken from the truly edgy Days of The King and then they air anodyne commercials that are so bland and pandering they’re offensive.

This strikes a nice balance, and gives fans of the fries something to talk about that’s actually charming and interesting.

It’s less self-serving than their previous attempts at this kind of thing (I’m thinking of the “Fries King” signage that was interesting mostly only to themselves). But people dig silly stuff—basing “important corporate decisions” on a chicken’s whims plays to a solid, young-ish demographic.

If they could stick with this personality awhile, people might feel like they understand the brand.

As I said in Selling Eating (Chapter 7, if you’re following along) consistency of personality, in some ways, is all you really have:

…in some ways, a consistent brand voice (as I said earlier) is all you have—you can change the menu, change the interior, redo the logo, move to new locations, and hire a different spokesman when yours dies. If you retain your personality and brand voice through it all, your customers will remain loyal. Starbucks goes through at least a half-dozen store themes a year, some seasonal and some promotional—but they have a consistent voice, and through it all you sense the same personality.

So you can have an ongoing relationship with that personality.

Just know: every time you speak in a voice different from the one you used last time your customers encountered you, you’re starting that relationship from zero.”

Why can’t McDonald’s get Millennials right? (From the book: Actions Speak Louder Than Brand Pronouncements.)

Ronald McDonald Playing Guitar and the Guitar is French FriesThey can do whatever they want at South by Southwest this year. All anyone will remember is that they asked a band to play for free.

They can put kale on the menu.

They can run this really charming ad all they want…

…and we will enjoy it, but all it really does is say, “Remember how big we are—we can pay to license every single character you’ve ever had an emotional investment in. Don’t mess with us. We’re big.”

They can try spreading love at the Super Bowl. They can try being honest.

But when they mess up like they did at South by Southwest (and then snarkily suggest via hashtag that it’s a #slownewsday), or get caught recommending a second job as financial advice to employees, then just look like they’re pandering (like with this hipster McD experiment), Millennials get what’s up.

And in the end, McDonald’s unloving actions end up speaking louder than its approved-for-broadcast words.

As I point out in Selling Eating, people form their opinion of your restaurant based on all the evidence you provide, everything, whether you want them to or not. Especially now, with social media and conscience-minded Millennials, you can’t dictate which parts of your message people pay attention to.

The struggle continues.

From Food & Drink: “Problem Solvers: Not Just What Makes A Restaurant Different, But What Makes It Important.”

Every issue of Food & Drink since Summer of 2011 has contained one of my columns. Here’s the latest one.

One summer back in the day I took college summer classes and worked at one of those smorgasbord places where customers paid an entry fee and ate as much as they wanted of anything their clogged hearts desired. Spending hours in one of those restaurants as an employee is not for the weak or overly sensitive, but I did learn something.

I learned that the way to drive a restaurant out of business is to think of it only as an exercise in cost control.

The people running this restaurant had no vision besides turning a profit—there was no effort to understand why people came, and came back, and then eventually stopped coming back. They just kept filling up the food bins until, a few years later, nobody cared very much about coming to eat there.

If you’d asked them, “What problem does this restaurant solve for the customers it’s trying to attract and retain?” they’d …well, they’d have rolled their eyes at the pretentious-sounding nature of the question, then said something like, “Look, it’s a variety of food and you can have as much as you want for one price. So the problem it solves is we’re the only place you can do that.”

That’s a feature. But the benefit of a restaurant lies in solving someone’s problem, making their life better, becoming important to their lives—beyond just being different.

Looking back, I see that this place actually did offer solutions to certain people—it was a place for curious but picky people to experiment with foods they wouldn’t usually eat, it was a place for high-metabolismed people who burn a lot of calories and don’t have much money, it was a place for tired parents to let their kids exercise a little independence without inconveniencing a server, for starters. But they never enunciated any of that. They just tried to keep the money they spent below the money that came in. So when the people who were fans got tired of it and no new people came in, and an ever-dwindling number of people were giving them money, they had no plan. No levers to throw. No clarity about why people liked them. No sense of how they were improving people’s lives, or providing a necessary solution unavailable elsewhere.

So, which sandwich chain made this turkey sub? You can’t tell, can you? Could be any of them. So clearly people aren’t deciding what’s important to them and choosing where to eat based merely on photos of subs. NOTE: This is not the photo Food & Drink used, for the record. They had a photo of a waiter. I didn’t have anything to say about the waiter photo.

So, which sandwich chain made this turkey sub? You can’t tell, can you? Could be any of them. So clearly people aren’t deciding what’s important to them and choosing where to eat based merely on photos of subs. NOTE: This is not the photo Food & Drink used, for the record. They had a photo of a waiter. I didn’t have anything to say about the waiter photo.

What problem (or problems) does your restaurant solve?

Let’s try an exercise. Here’s how some sandwich restaurants might answer that question.

1.

THE PROBLEM WE SOLVE IS: FAST FOOD IS UNHEALTHY, BUT HEALTHY FOOD IS USUALLY EXPENSIVE AND SLOW. Subway succeeds despite marketing that’s so scattershot it defies generalization—because Subway solves a problem: when you’re in a hurry and want something inexpensive but can’t stand to eat another fast food meal, they magically appear in the nearest strip mall.

2.

THE PROBLEM WE SOLVE IS: PEOPLE LIKE THE CONVENIENCE OF SANDWICHES BUT SOME FIND SUBWAY A LITTLE DOWNSCALE.

Some people get tired of Subway, or find it a little too basic, or something. So places like Firehouse Subs or Potbelly’s solve that problem: when you’re in less of a hurry but still aren’t ready to commit to a place that has a server, this ilk improves on the sandwich you’d probably get at Subway. But their next challenge is to figure out what problem they solve that might cause someone to choose one over another—that’s what’s creating problems for Quizno’s. They used to be “the toasty sub” but now there’s a lot of warm subs available, and they don’t know what problem they solve that Potbelly’s or Firehouse Subs or even other fast casual places don’t solve just as well.

3.

THE PROBLEM WE SOLVE IS: EVERYBODY HAS THE SAME ORDERING SYSTEM AND PEOPLE DON’T REALIZE ALL THE VARIETY THEY CAN HAVE ON A WARM SANDWICH.

That’s maybe what Which Wich would say. And it is kind of fun to figure out their system and focus on all your options—but I do have a follow-up question. Was this a problem? Were people frustrated or bored with the ordering system at other places? Did they feel they didn’t understand their choices? I worry that Which Wich is solving a problem people don’t actually have. I wonder what makes people come back, unless it’s that they develop a hankering for a particular sandwich that the other sub shops can’t replicate.

This is important because when the novelty wears off, and any given location requires a little extra work to get there, Which Wich will need to understand what they’re doing that helps people, that resolves an issue people have, that appreciably improves customers’ days in a way that goes beyond just “it’s unusual.”

That smorgasboard I worked at had the novelty of a big, constantly rotating wheel—oriented horizontally like on Wheel of Fortune. You walked up, stood in one place, and your food rotated in front of you slowly, giving you just enough time to grab a big spoon stuck in the moving bin, scoop out some food, and replace the spoon. But that novelty wasn’t enough.

4.

THE PROBLEM WE SOLVE IS: SOME PEOPLE DON’T WANT TO SPEND A LOT OF MONEY, OR DRIVE TO THE PART OF TOWN THAT HAS A POTBELLY’S, BUT ARE STILL SICK OF FAST FOOD.

I’m a big fan of the new Arby’s campaign, where Ving Rhames dispels all questions about the reason for Arby’s to exist by declaring “We Got the Meats” in an impatient, angry voice. With that, Arby’s solves the problem of dull, wimpy sandwiches, without getting all foodie-esque or hoity-toity about—for people whose problem is they’re tired of both fast food and Subway but are not ready to bump up to the expense of a fast casual sandwich shop, now there’s another healthy-seeming sandwich option. The trouble Arby’s may have now is creating enough of a real difference in their individual restaurants that the campaign retains its believability.

It’s easy to give simple answers to this question, answers that don’t really help when the going gets tough: “We solve the problem of getting a good, hot lunch.” That’s too universal. “We solve the problem of great food at a great price.” That’s hype. The importance of understanding the aspects of your restaurant that make life better for people—not what makes you different, but what makes you important—sometimes only become clear when there’s trouble.

Of course, if you really understand what problem you solve, and solve it well, and repeatedly, and in interesting ways, well, there may never be much trouble.

 

Thoughts on inventing new “good, bad” products.

Let’s just give Taco Bell the game before we start: to date, there are no better examples of indulgent, wry-grin-inducing, bad-for-you, fun-to-say/fun-to-eat, delightfully tacky product innovations or new product introduction or quarterly promotional product rollouts to compare with the Locos Tacos.

Taco-Bell-Fiery-Doritos-Locos-Taco-Supreme

It’s like one of those Billboard songs or NFL stats that establishes a record nobody can break for years, even decades. It’s like Citizen Kane. Pairing their perennially lowbrow/high-interest basic taco with a respectably marketed junk food like Doritos resulted in a down-market-dwelling marriage everyone could appreciate—and sent innovation teams scrambling in fast food networks across the world.

In the Philippines, for example, where customers are presented with the option of ordering the new Double Down Dog from KFC.

Oh dear.
Oh, dear.

Yes, it’s indulgent, but I don’t think that’s a “wry grin” on the faces of potential customers. I think its more like “reluctant grimace.”

It’s just the latest example of products that are trying to be so over-the-top they create buzz and sales.

What’s a product innovation team leader to do?

1. Calm down.

2. Think about your restaurant in relation to other restaurants—why do your ideal customers prefer you?

3. Having answered #2., imagine dying and having to list what you did with your life to your deity, whichever it might be.

4. Stop trying to top tacos with Doritos for shells, because it’s making you panic—you can’t bowl a strike worrying about the other guys’ strikes.

5. Look at Sonic. Sonic does appropriate new product news really well.