The Ingredients for Emotional Fast-Food Connection

    What are the factors influencing consumers’ emotional response? Taste, consistency, marketing, environment, and packaging.

    McDonald’s floating grimace in a pool.
    McDonald’s
    Consistency adds a sense of comfort for many consumers, as does nostalgia.

    Editor’s note: This is part one of a two-part series on emotionally driven consumers and their connection to quick-service restaurants. Part two will cover testing methodologies that empower emotional transparency.

    If you’ve ever overheard two people in the middle of a heated debate between thin-crust or deep-dish pizza, you understand there’s no doubt our relationship with food is deeply emotional. When consumers crave their favorite fast-food restaurant, they may be picturing a tantalizing burger and fries combo; however, their true satisfaction lies in how well the restaurant aligns with their emotional drivers. You’ve been training for a half marathon for six weeks now, mainly eating carefully planned meals full of leafy greens, lean protein, and whole grains.

    The night before the half marathon, you begin planning your post-race indulgence. When you finish the race, you can’t wait to reward all the hard work you’ve put in. You order without abandon at the drive-thru window, skimping on no topping, side dish, or dessert. Then, you devour your victory meal with exhilaration, savoring every bite. Eating is a necessity, but also heavily intertwined with emotion and longing. Consumers’ fast food choices hinge on how they want to feel during and after the experience.

    In this instance, the runner’s fast-food restaurant and order decisions were fueled by the desire to feel indulgent, comforted, and rewarded. On the other hand, a busy mother might be motivated by wanting to provide a semi-healthy meal for her family without the stress of cooking. When quick-service restaurants can understand the emotional consumers’ emotional drivers and subsequently align their menu items to satisfy these needs, they can ensure their customers are always hungry for more positive QSR experiences.

    The role of emotion in consumers’ quick-serve experiences becomes particularly relevant in the context of product-liking and consumer experience. Emotions are the neural glue that connects every facet of our human experience, including movement, memory, metabolism, thoughts, context, and sensations. Acting as gatekeepers to our conscious lives, emotions dictate what we pay attention to, help us prioritize information, and determine how we react. Acclaimed researcher and neuroscientist Antonio Demasio states, “Emotions are the musical score that accompanies your thoughts and actions.” Emotions are so foundational to our decision-making ability that research has shown that damage to areas in the brain associated with emotion leads to a complete inability to make decisions.

    Unsurprisingly, emotions also control our perceptions of brands and decision-making as consumers. According to the Harvard Business Review, emotion is the primary factor in consumer experience and product-liking. Emotional drivers, such as a sense of thrill, wanting to succeed, confidence, and desire for security, fuel our purchase decision-making on a foundational level. In HBR’s list of top 10 motivators for brand connection, all 10 were emotional drivers. Consumers are often not even aware of the emotions influencing their decision-making. Gerald Zaltman, a professor at Harvard Business School, posits 95 percent of consumers’ purchase decisions occur in the subconscious mind. To fully leverage the potential for emotional connection within the quick-serve industry, companies should work to interpret the emotions that drive consumer liking and how they relate to each facet of the consumer’s product experience, including flavor, smell, texture, and packaging.

    While all elements of quick-serve restaurants contribute to the emotional effect on consumers, flavor (perhaps unsurprisingly) is particularly dominant. Our senses of taste and smell work together to create flavor, the vibrancy behind our culinary experiences. When we chew our food, aroma molecules travel through the back of our mouths and noses to our olfactory receptors and introduce another layer of depth, intensity, and complexity to the meal. Taste and smell are both processed by the limbic system, the same part of the brain associated with emotion and memory, causing us to remember and associate flavors we encountered in the past. Not only do consumers have strong emotional responses to flavor, they also tend to easily recall them. As a result, consumers often gravitate toward quick-serve restaurants associated with pleasant memories and emotions.

    If a consumer grew up going to McDonald’s for a soft serve ice cream cone with their grandmother every Friday as a child, they might try to recreate those feelings of comfort and happiness by swinging through the drive-thru at McDonald’s as an adult. Our ability to transcend time and space to revisit a past moment or memory after smelling or tasting a familiar food has a name: the Proust effect. You’re focused on work at the office, and your coworker brings in Papa Johns for lunch. When they open their garlic butter sauce, you’re suddenly transported back to your childhood. Our minds have an uncanny ability to transform external stimuli into meaning. Because of our sense of smell and taste have such close proximity to our emotional epicenter, they are particularly powerful when it comes to reliving and recalling information.

    No matter how strong or positive a consumer’s associations are with a particular quick-serve, the success of the restaurant is dependent on its ability to effectively replicate the consumer experience across locations. Expectation is a double-edged sword that guides many consumers’ restaurant and menu decisions. If a brand is unable to create consistent experiences across locations or meet consumers’ expectations set by the standard of other franchise establishments, the consumer’s experience will negatively outweigh any positive previous experience.

    Consistency adds a sense of comfort for many consumers who know they can have the same expected dining experience when traveling out of town as they can at their regular quick-service restaurant location five minutes from home. However, consumers who bite into a burger hoping it will taste the same as the one they’ve grown up eating are poised for disappointment if the meal fails to deliver. In an article by Harvard Business Review, “to feel secure” is in the top 10 emotional drivers for consumers across various industries. In the quick-service industry, consistency across outlets can increase consumers’ trust and loyalty.

    Another interesting aspect of consumers’ emotional response to flavor is how our cravings shift based on the seasons. In the summer months, consumers tend to gravitate towards refreshing, lighter fare sprinkled with seasonal fruit such as watermelon and berries—foods that make people feel confident, healthy, and connected to the natural world. This summer, Wendy’s brought back their crowd-pleasing seasonal Strawberry Chicken Salad from 2021, featuring fresh strawberries, candied almonds, an airy champagne vinaigrette, and grilled chicken. When the leaves begin to change, consumers crave the spicy, warm flavors of fall. Fueled by all-things pumpkin, consumers seek out menu items that leave them feeling cozy and cheerful as they reacquaint themselves with their sweater collections.

    For many, the arrival of Starbucks Pumpkin Spice marks the unofficial arrival of fall. This year, Chick-fil-A put its hat in the ring by introducing the Autumn Spice Milkshake, the perfect opportunity to present its first new milkshake flavor in four years while fueling consumers’ seasonal desires. By the time Christmas rolls around, consumers are on the lookout for menu items that leave them feeling festive, comforted, and indulgent. Hearty ingredients come out of the woodworks along with peppermint, mocha, and nutmeg. McDonald’s elusive holiday pies have been on the quick-service December menu for two years, and many consumers hope the dessert makes the cut for 2022. By experimenting with limited-time offerings and ingredients, brands can even more effectively align their offerings of flavors and experiences with consumers’ emotional desires.

    Food, in general, is inextricably linked to a sense of occasion and togetherness. From holidays spent breaking bread around a table with loved ones to the innate bonding that occurs when strangers share a meal together, eating with others is a shared experience that most people cherish and relate to.

    Quick-serves can leverage the power of emotion and nostalgia surrounding the fast-food experience through marketing that appeals to consumers’ memories and desired expectations. By strengthening positive associations, quick-service concepts can establish a personal relationship with their consumers. When companies understand the consumers’ driving desires, such as spending quality time with loved ones, comfort, indulgence, celebration, or community, they can intentionally and strategically position their branding. This process extends to how quick-serves design their dining rooms, create their table configurations, choose colors and lighting for their decor, take orders, and serve food, and every other element that contributes to the consumer experience. By understanding consumers’ emotional needs, restaurants can curate their environment and marketing in a way that communicates their ability to satisfy them. 

    Since the pandemic, many consumers have skipped the dining room and opted for drive-thru or delivery. Since these consumers aren’t immersed in the world of the restaurant, quick-serves have far less opportunity to make an impression and provide an outstanding emotional experience. Packaging innovation allows brands to continue to convey to consumers who they are while helping them execute a smoother, more pleasurable dining experience on the road.

    No matter how delicious a meal is, if a consumer can’t go back into the office after lunch because the bag broke and they have a burger on their shirt, they aren’t going to have a positive emotional response. From using materials that help keep fries from getting soggy to covering drive-thru drinks with film to prevent spilling, packaging innovations enhance the consumer experience and inspire positive emotional motivators, such as “convenience.” For example, Starbucks recently introduced a new lid that eliminates the need for a straw, so the restaurant only provides straws to consumers who request one. With this minor adjustment, consumers who frequent Starbucks can feel aligned with their sustainability goals without having to compromise their experience. 

    Taste, consistency, ingredients and seasonality, environment, packaging, and marketing work together to mold consumers’ emotional quick-service restaurant experiences, characterized by memories and associations that customers will either want to repeat or avoid. Understanding how these factors impact the consumer journey on a more nuanced level than simply, “Do they like or dislike the product?” can ensure quick-serves always serve repeatable delight and transform casual diners into brand loyalists.

    Valerie Cansler is the VP, Client Services, South, Curion, https://curioninsights.com/who-we-are/leadership/. With experience in marketing research, product development, and engineering, Val utilizes her unique perspective to design meaningful research that solves complicated business issues.