Quick-service restaurants—quick by name, quick by nature, especially when it comes to the pace at which the sector is changing. It’s fierce. Accelerated by the pandemic, developments in digital, delivery and people’s diets mean that maintaining relevance in this rapidly evolving market has never been more important.
But most significantly, there’s been a fundamental shift within quick service’s very reason for being. It used to be all about convenience. Now, it’s about culture. And for good reason. With delivery apps on the rise, the category’s original point of differentiation isn’t a benefit anymore. It’s table stakes.
So, to drive relevance and resonance in today’s world, brands within the space need to revaluate and rearticulate their role in peoples’ lives. If that seems a bit daunting, here’s a recipe to meet this ongoing challenge.
Supersize growth with human truths
Brands that do well are grounded in a fundamental human truth. This not only enables connection with consumers on a deeper, emotional level, it also helps future proof the business as the market context evolves, making it easier to innovate, move into adjacencies and identify collaborations.
Take Taco Bell, which over the years has truly come to own “Late Night” (James Corden, eat your heart out). The chain has rooted its brand in “the late-night food run,” a standard practice for night owls, college students and club goers alike. Owning this truth has offered ample opportunities for brand building, from late night cravings menus to the nocturnal color palette to partnerships with ride-sharing apps like Lyft.
And brand innovation doesn’t have to end in the restaurant. Finding new places to meet fans where they are in unique ways will not only get people talking, but it can also open up new revenue streams.
No doubt fed by the insight that nearly two-thirds of gamers order takeout, McDonald's—whose mission is to make delicious feel-good moments easy for everyone—applied for trademarks to open a virtual restaurant in metaverse, enabling consumers to order at home delivery without leaving gameplay.
Drive standout by serving it your way
Tightly entwined with growth is standout—which means making sure your brand gets noticed and chosen above others—through identity, product, and experience.
The first ingredient is a visual identity that can both stand the test of time, and act as a sign of the times. This means designing and deploying assets with enough consistency to build enduring associations, and enough flexibility to adapt to different regions, touchpoints, and cultural moments.
Hot off a global rebrand, McDonald’s released the ‘Raise your arches’ campaign, the first commercial to show neither restaurant nor food. Yet throughout, it uses semiotic cues to reference the brand’s most distinctive assets—from raised eyebrows, post-it notes, and people walking in pairs all simulating the iconic “Golden Arches,” to the brand colors popping up in the hallways and in clothing. And it was a massive success, achieving a 98 percent brand recognition score.
Another element in a quick-serve standout: celebrate your product truth in an ownable way. Showing what sets you apart in a creative way can drive category stand-out and consumer preference. Take DQ’s Blizzard, a milkshake made by blending soft-serve with mix-ins, which is said to be so thick that it stays in place even when turned upside down. The chain apparently believes in the product so much that it pledged to serve every Blizzard bottom-up. And that’s not all. If a customer receives a Blizzard served the normal way, they're rewarded by getting their next one free.
Finally, create signature sensory experiences. Illinois-based Portillo’s is an expert at this. Founded in 1963, it is a love letter to old-time Chicago. An immersive feast, quite literally, its restaurants include overtly kitsch decor, employees taking orders on paper bags, and rhymes like “Number 9, it’s time to dine!” when your order’s up. While it might be over-the-top for some, this ‘prohibition-inspired fast-food theme park’ offers a distinctive, multi-sensory environment that builds long-term memory structures.
Nurture fandom by capitalizing on culture
The final factor in quick-service’s secret sauce? Fandom. Brands should always be looking to build a culture that people want to be a part of. From stellar service to branded artifacts to purposeful actions there are many ways to foster community—with the ultimate goal of attaining cult status.
The key to this is to identify and activate consumers whose values align with your brand. It’s no surprise that Oregon-based coffee house Dutch Bros is one of the most successful brands of recent years. It is the epitome of a cult brand—distinct and with an outspoken cohort of loyal fans that see their beliefs reflected through the brand.
Founded by two brothers, the chain’s “broista” staff is encouraged to get personal with consumers – from conversations about family to free coffees when patrons are having a tough day. In addition to unparalleled service, the brand is actively growing its ‘Dutch Army’, through initiatives like free stickers with every drink purchased on the first Wednesday of the month. It sounds simple, but those stickers have become collectors’ items that not only adorn people’s cars, offices and guitars, but are traded on Reddit and social media.
You can also fan devotion by using branded rituals—behaviors, habits or ceremonies that are distinctly associated with your brand—can be a huge driver of consumer engagement and loyalty. In fact, science shows have people enjoy their food more when they consistently perform small activities before eating.
These can range from ritualistic ways of ordering to packaging hacks to referencing insider knowledge only a true fan would appreciate. Famous for its Not-So-Secret Menu, California’s first drive-thru hamburger chain, In-N-Out, is chock-full of Easter eggs. For example, the two palm trees crossing each other in front of every restaurant reference the founder’s favorite movie, “It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World.” Being in the know—in on the secret—creates a passionate group of devotees.
And if you don’t already have your own fanbase, don’t worry. You can always borrow others’ to drive exclusivity and desire.
To ensure fans keep on “lovin’ it,” McDonald’s has doubled down on celebrity collaborations and limited time offers from Saweetie to Cardi B & Offset. Their most recent collab sees them partner with streetwear brand CLOT, offering a signature McSpicy collection to celebrate its 20-year anniversary in Mainland China.
As the sector moves increasingly away from its convenience USP, no matter which challenge you face, whether boosting growth, driving standout, or growing fandom, sprinkling some of the core ingredients of branding best practice should certainly spice up success.
Andi Davids is Global Strategic Business Director at Bulletproof, an independent brand creative agency with studios in London, New York, Singapore, Amsterdam, Sydney, Shanghai and Melbourne. Andi loves to unpack the way that people form meaning in their lives, elevating brands beyond recognizable identities to dynamic reflections of human experience. She’s used this approach with some of the world’s most iconic brands including Heinz, Mars, PepsiCo, the UK Government, and the United Nations.