Everyone is talking about food. With the success of the Food Network, cooking blogs, and innovative food delivery services such as Blue Apron, ordinary people, particularly Millennials, have become more sophisticated in their tastes and dining habits. They know what quinoa is. They crave Brussels sprouts and even know how to make them (with bacon, of course). Mark Bittman , Michael Pollan, and other top-shelf cookbook authors have become household names. Their subject matter regularly finds its way into everyday conversation, leading to lively dialogue about grass-fed beef and non-GMO wheat. People are interested in knowing what goes into their food and seek items that contain few ingredients, all of which they can pronounce.

At Continuum, we’re very interested in food. Through consumer research, design thinking methodologies, and close collaboration with restaurant professionals, we have come to understand why it’s so important for businesses in the restaurant space to know their customers and embody that understanding through a strong brand.

A Millennial state of mind

In our research for restaurants like 2ovens (Bertucci’s) and Captain D’s, we've observed that when it comes to food, Millennials want a shared experience. They want to try unfamiliar dishes—ethnic cuisines from unfamiliar countries and unexpected flavor combinations. They want to see their food being prepared for both entertainment and the promise of freshness. They want to excite all their senses, to feel that their experience is authentic and novel, and they don’t want to do it alone. They see food as a centerpiece of being social. As one Gen Y customer put it: “We don’t have money or good jobs, but you have to eat, and you can make eating a social event.”

Competition is fierce

Whether they’re eating charcuterie at home with friends, checking out the nearby banh mi food truck, or building their own burrito at Chipotle, it’s clear Millennials have many options to quench their thirst for interesting culinary experiences. With the early success of chains like Panera and Pei Wei, restaurateurs and entrepreneurs capitalized on the fast-casual trend. The limited-service restaurant category grew by 2.5 percent in 2014, according to Technomic, and is projected to grow by 3.5 percent in 2015. With so many new concepts being cooked up, the market has become dense, making it difficult to stand out on restaurant row.

Millennials want to excite all their senses, to feel that their experience is authentic and novel, and they don’t want to do it alone.

Complicating the culinary landscape is that the competition goes beyond the quick-service category. Depending on the customer’s mode—his or her goal or state of mind in a given moment—there are many options that could meet the right needs for the occasion. For example, someone looking to catch up with a friend over lunch could easily do so at Qdoba (quick service), Zoes Kitchen (fast casual), Chili’s (casual dining), or the Cheesecake Factory (casual dining plus). On the other hand, a road warrior looking for a safe-but-satisfying option might choose Subway (quick serve), Shake Shack (fast casual), or Red Robin (casual dining). At times, the lines between categories become blurred, thus increasing the competition and making it even more difficult to survive.

Establish your point of view

The obvious question becomes: How do you make it in the quick-service market? Success isn’t about mimicking the competition. Sure, you can learn from them, but if you’re going to beat them, you’ll need to differentiate with a unique point of view.

Suppose you want to tackle Gen Y as your target customer base. That's smart; they're estimated to have $200 billion of annual spending power by 2017. Start by talking to those customers and truly understanding what they want. You'll arrive at some common themes, which you can translate into attributes you'll want to represent in everything from your menu to staff attire to the layout of your space.

Bring brand attributes to life

Using brand attributes in this way allows restaurants to stick to what they know and do that one thing exceptionally well. It offers a clear point of view that compels customers to seek them out. The key is to apply this point of view to every aspect of the experience: menu, service, design language, messaging tone, space, packaging, online presence, and so on. Every single thing a customer touches should feel connected and tied together. Through our research, it became clear that Millennials are looking for certain qualities in their restaurants. The words we heard weren’t surprising. They get tossed around the industry quite frequently: local, fresh, customized, authentic. Many restaurants claim to be these things. But what do they look like and how do you create experiences that live up to their promise?

In today’s crowded market, it’s more important than ever to stand for something. The qualities you embody will depend on your offering and your core customer. But it’s up to you to make the hard decisions that keep your brand true to itself.

Carin Stimolo and Leah Schwartz are principal and copywriter, respectively, for Continuum, a global innovation design consultancy.
Consumer Trends, Customer Experience, Design, Fast Casual, Outside Insights, Restaurant Operations, Story