Fast Food

Diners Pick Healthier Options, But Customer Traffic Remains Flat Overall

And sometimes a burger will do

Although customer traffic at fast food restaurants remained flat year-on-year, sales strengthened for well differentiated brands and the brand value of the category improved 10 percent after a 5 percent increase a year ago.

Factors influencing how often consumers visited a fast food outlet and the brand they selected included price, occasion, concern about healthy eating and even the rise in online shopping, which affected the number of people lunching or snacking at shopping malls.

Of all the segments of QSR, or quick service restaurant business, fast casual traffic improved most, according to US research reported by industry journal Nation’s Restaurant News. This segment, which includes brands like Chipotle Mexican Grill and Panera, met the consumer desire for healthier food and a comfortable ambiance.

Across the fast food category, brands continued to upgrade their locations and leverage the investment by driving customer traffic at other meal parts of the day, especially breakfast and mid-afternoon snacks, with new offerings and lots of coffee. The quick service segment, led by McDonald’s, drew the largest share at breakfast.

The addition of menu items sometimes diluted the clarity of the brand message, however. The McDonald’s share price lagged when service slowed as the company attempted to introduce many new menu items. McDonald’s plans to simplify its offering and invest in kitchen equipment that enables more meal customization, a benefit it will market to customers. These developments impacted the category:

  • Menu innovation
    Wendy’s focused on its core item, the burger, but presented it in a new way, on a pretzel bun that drove sales and received a lot of social media attention. Wendy’s is new this year to the BrandZ™ fast food category ranking.
  • Benefits of franchising
    By shifting to mostly franchise operated restaurants, Burger King reduced costs and almost doubled its net income. Its stock price surged and brand value improved 9 percent.
  • Improved ambience
    McDonald’s will have about half of its roughly 35,400 units remodeled by the end of 2014. KFC, mostly known for its fried chicken, opened a fast casual prototype in Louisville, Kentucky, headquarters of Yum Brands, the corporate parent also of Pizza Hut and Taco Bell.

Expanding the day and the menu

With traffic flat, brands focused on building business throughout the day, especially at breakfast, but also at potential snack times, reflecting how daily routines have become less regimented around three defined meals, leaving more time for grazing.

Consumers typically select their breakfast stop based on convenience and habit, although a well-priced offer can interrupt ritual. For lunch, people prefer variety and brands attempt to get into the consumer’s repertoire. Brand leaders responded to these dynamics.

Having recently refined its logo to focus on the image of the siren and eliminate the reference to coffee, Starbucks broadened the brand offering around the core brand experience of affordable luxury. To fortify breakfast and build its snack and lunch business it added baked goods, sandwiches, salads and soups, leveraging its 2012 acquisition of La Boulange bakery.

The company also expanded distribution of its Evolution Fresh juices in its own stores and in supermarkets. Starbucks is introducing Yoghurt made by Danone, under the Evolution Fresh brand. And Starbucks also featured cold beverages that it calls “handcrafted sodas,” with three flavors – ginger ale, lemon ale and spiced root beer – prepared by baristas. After testing alcohol and hot food in several cities, Starbucks plans to roll out this initiative throughout the US over the next few years.

McDonald’s added pastries to its breakfast business, a mealtime that it dominates in the US with offerings like its “Egg McMuffin.” Aiming to break a consumer habit and grab share from a competitor, Burger King featured a similar item, priced at a dollar, with the line, “It’s not that original, but it’s super affordable.”

The priority of health

Although McDonald’s and Burger King added salads to their menus, those items did not drive significant business. When customers go to the burger segment leaders, they’ve chosen a particular experience. The larger health message from burger restaurants is not only about menu items but also about the safety and standards of food sourcing and preparation.

Chains like Chipotle and Panera fit more squarely in the health trend as they offer food in a counter-service, fast food environment, but their value message is about more than price and includes both quality and the dining room environment.

Tim Hortons, which dominates the Canadian market with around 3,470 restaurants, takes a similar approach with an emphasis on hot meals, like lasagna, served in a bowl to evoke a home cooked feeling. Like any fast food chain, Chipotle, Panera and Tim Hortons deliver taste, but they emphasize the taste of ingredients rather than sauces.

Chipotle promoted its “food with integrity” strapline with a social media video series called “Farmed and Dangerous.” In one episode, a friendly and entrepreneurial scarecrow tours a nightmarish cartoon depiction of industrial food production and then begins its own fresh food business.

With its claim of fresher ingredients, Subway also benefits from the interest in health. To underscore freshness, Subway featured Kermit and Miss Piggy in a video where the Muppets meet Subway spokesman Jared Fogel and the Swedish Chef Muppet prepares a sandwich loaded with vegetables.

Social and digital innovation

In a marriage of digital and restaurant theater, Pizza Hut, a leader in digital online ordering, experimented with in-restaurant ordering technology. A tabletop function like a giant interactive screen and customers order by touching virtual pizzas and toppings.

Wendy’s reached over 85 million Facebook users with a series of videos in which a musical group adopted lyrics submitted by fans into “Pretzel Love Songs” to promote the chain’s pretzel bacon cheeseburger. About three-quarters of participants accessed Facebook with a mobile device.

Wendy’s subsequently announced that it would accept mobile payment at roughly 6,500 US locations. Burger King updated its mobile app to allow smartphone payments. Around 11 percent of weekly transactions at Starbucks US locations are made with a mobile device. The brand upgraded its iPhone app to enable customers to add a tip for the barista.

In other social and digital marketing efforts, Burger King rolled out bkdelivers.com for home delivery and McDonald’s tweeted to build traffic during off hours, when people might feel like snacking.

Fast growing markets

Growth for fast food brands slowed in China because of the cooling economy and food-sourcing issues, including a bird flu scare that impacted KFC. With about 4,600 outlets in China, KFC is recovering from weakened sales over food safety concerns related to its supply of poultry. A campaign to reassure Chinese consumers began in late 2013.

McDonalds’s has around 2,000 restaurants in China. Starbucks is present in China with over 1,000 stores and is expanding in India with Tata as a joint venture partner. Burger King announced plans to enter India with the Everstone Group as a joint venture partner. The chain controls around 13,600 restaurants worldwide, mostly franchises, over half located in North America.

Brands are developing a presence in Southeast Asia, with McDonald’s and Starbucks opening in Vietnam. And as if the usual challenges of global expansion weren’t sufficient, KFC opened its largest drive-thru restaurant in Kiev, Ukraine.

Action Points

Be healthy.

Given a choice, consumers today prefer to eat healthier. That doesn’t mean they’ll never indulge. And it doesn’t mean they’ll restrict their diets to only green and leafy stuff. It does mean that when people eat out they want tasty but healthier versions of their favorite meals.

Be consistent.

Along with their global success, McDonald’s and Starbucks share at least one other common characteristic. Their restaurants are an important place in the lives of customers. Customers regularly return because each brand consistently delivers on its promise.

Be fast.

Whether you call it fast food or QSR (Quick Service Restaurant), the essence of the category is in the name. Speed pertains to all aspects of the experience from ordering to delivery and payment. In some categories customers may appreciate the convenience of mobile wallet transactions, in fast food they’re likely to expect it.

Fast Food Up 10%


Definition
The fast food category includes Quick Service Restaurant (QSR) and casual dining brands, which vary in customer and menu focus, but mostly compete for the same day parts.


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