In this last Brand New Perspectives of 2012, I’m breaking from my usual Q&A format to recap some of the most important brand developments in fast food this past year.
Despite the sluggish economy and uncertainty that typically accompanies election years, companies in our industry chose to make some of their boldest moves in 2012, and some exciting new chains took the stage. Here are my picks for the seven biggest brand stories of the year.
1. Burger King. It was a big year for Burger King. From launching a new menu to going public to running a celebrity-studded ad campaign, the chain no longer remained the category’s sleeping giant. The company seemed intent on reclaiming its cool factor by featuring Jay Leno, David Beckham, Steven Tyler, and other hot stars in a TV ad blitz. Sales have indeed turned around, but it’s not clear whether the fast feeder has differentiated the brand enough in the actual customer experience—including food quality, facilities, and service—to sustain the business once ad-spending levels return to normal.
2. Pie Five Pizza. Countless restaurateurs are trying to create “the Chipotle of pizza,” but one has gained substantial traction: Pie Five Pizza Co. Pie Five adapts the quick-customization model of the admired burrito chain to offer customers the option of building their own pizza from 21 toppings, seven sauces, two crusts, and four cheeses. Pie Five is not only an operational feat, it’s also an interesting brand story. It’s become quite a hot brand; less than two years after its start, the company is predicted to finish 2012 with 10 units. And the concept is owned by the 53-year-old, 300-unit Pizza Inn chain, so it’s got the know-how and financial backing to make a strong marketing push.
3. Starbucks. Starbucks is moving forward boldly into new areas. Earlier this year, the company opened the first units of a new concept derived from its purchase of the Evolution Fresh juice brand. It also acquired La Boulange Bakery, with the intent of upgrading its food offerings, and continued its aggressive push into grocery with its VIA Ready Brew packets.
More recently, the company launched its own Verismo single-serve coffee, espresso, and café machines, and planned to open its first tea-only store under the Tazo brand. All of these moves are transforming the Starbucks brand from a “third place” to enjoy the coffee experience into a corporate purveyor of all kinds of food and drink. Only time will tell whether or not these moves will distract the company and dilute its brand equity.
4. Taco Bell. The union of Taco Bell and Doritos is a match made in brand heaven. The Doritos Locos Tacos launch last March revived the quick-service brand. It was the biggest launch in the chain’s 50-year history, and more than 200 million of the tacos have now been sold. While the introduction was supported by one of the company’s largest marketing pushes and included innovative QR-code and augmented-reality features, the effort primarily showcased the power of cobranding. Taco Bell capitalized on Doritos’ crave-ability and cultural relevance to make questions about the chain’s food quality a distant memory.
5. LYFE Kitchen. When a fast-food chain gets written up in a technology magazine, you know the brand is up to something interesting. This past summer, Wired reported on a new concept that aims “not just to build a radically sustainable, healthy brand of fast food … [but] to transform the way the world produces organic ingredients, doing for responsibly grown meat and veggies what McDonald’s did for factory-farmed beef.” The article was talking about LYFE Kitchen, a better-for-you fast casual started by Mike Roberts, former president and COO of the Golden Arches.
Although the company only has one open unit, in Palo Alto, California, it’s set to open roughly 10 new restaurants around the country next year. It’s also signed on Jennifer Garner as a brand ambassador and is already selling a line of products in retail. This brand is only getting started.
6. Chipotle. Chipotle has been the hot story for several years, but it catapulted forward in 2012 when it ran its “Back to the Start” ad during the Grammy Awards. The ad, the chain’s first TV effort, takes viewers on a two-minute journey, depicting a farmer transforming his huge industrialized farming compound into one with more sustainable and humane practices. The spot (which also features Willie Nelson covering Coldplay’s “The Scientist”) communicated the company’s “food with integrity” brand platform in a unique and memorable way, and its airing on such a high-profile show garnered the brand valuable media coverage and word of mouth.
7. Chick-fil-A. If you believe the maxim “there’s no such thing as bad PR,” then Chick-fil-A came out a winner in the backlash resulting from comments made in July by CEO Dan Cathy. And while consumers, advocates, and politicians lined up on both sides of the issue, the lines of customers that formed at the restaurants on the subsequent “Chick-fil-A Appreciation Day” were a testament to the brand’s loyal following. The controversy served as a wake-up call to all companies about the care with which we must express our values in today’s media environment.
I’m sure 2013 will prove to be another exciting year of brand stories. For now, keep your questions coming! If you are an owner, operator, or company executive with an issue or challenge with brand building, e-mail your questions to [email protected]  and I may respond in an upcoming column.