Overcoming the Fast Food Conundrum | V by Viacom

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Overcoming the Fast Food Conundrum

How to change without changing.

Oct 27, 2016

“Let’s get McDonald’s.” What heart doesn’t beat just a little faster at the idea of those perfect fries, with their crispy outsides and soft insides? And of course there’s the glorious, cold sweetness of a vanilla shake. It’s not hard to understand why, at the 2016 Olympic Games, the best athletes in the world were willing to stand in lines “longer than football fields” just to get those treats.

“Treats” is the key word here. For many of us, McDonald’s is reserved for special occasions. What we eat on the daily is much less fun (and much less delicious). We can totally relate to Sawan Serasinghe, the Australian badminton player, whose post-competition feast, displayed prominently on his Instagram feed, was a full-on McDonald’s inspired celebration.

But celebration doesn’t explain why the Chinese basketball team ate McDonald’s every single day they were in Rio. What’s going on there?

QSR Relationship Status? It’s Complicated

Six years ago the team at Scratch – now the creative strategy group inside Viacom Velocity – set out to understand why consumers love certain brands more than others. We spoke to 25,000 respondents about 170 brands in 33 different categories. We studied consumer preferences and behavior over three generations: Baby Boomers, Gen X-ers and Millennials. What we discovered led us to create Brand Love, a proprietary tool that helps brands find ways to reach fans and engage with them.

Consumer love for quick service restaurant (QSR) brands is complicated and emotional. Our Brand Love model showed that people are torn between wanting QSRs to change and wanting them to remain exactly as they are. In focus groups, people grouped QSRs with other brands they believed had “lost their way,” or that “used to be great.” At the same time, 50% of people said that if a favorite restaurant discontinued a favorite menu item, they’d “go there less or not at all.” The challenge? Finding ways to be different, yet stay the same.

The Olympics is a great marketing opportunity for McDonald’s, but it only occurs once every four years. In the meantime, how do QSR brands address their fans’ contradictory desires?

Time to Get Sentimental

Embracing nostalgia – a positive association with how a brand once made you feel – is one possibility. Brand Love revealed that Millennials really want QSR to summon positive memories. This insight supports journalist Ryan Bolt’s idea that the Big Mac mania in Rio was partly motivated by “the opportunity to live out childhood fantasies of eating as much free McDonald’s as [you] can stomach”.

But evoking nostalgia for the past doesn’t guarantee loyalty in the present. You have to find innovative ways to connect the present to that idealized past. One way Taco Bell does it is through Instagram. A post from January 16, 2016 features a hand holding a slip of paper in front of a Taco Bell. Written on the paper is, “Sometimes I stop and reminisce about the place where we had our first kiss.” The photo caption reads: “Where the magic happens.” That photo received 15,174 likes.

Where the magic happens.

A post shared by Taco Bell (@tacobell) on

The big question for QSRs is how to move from the treat zone into a place where they’re part of our daily lives. The category is ripe for innovation, but it’s a question of how you innovate. Creating a dialogue between past and present is a good place to start. The vanilla milkshakes we remember from childhood are as delicious today as they are in our memories. (And the pictures look great on Instagram, too.)

Stay tuned for more of Velocity’s insights about consumers’ evolving relationships with the brands they love. 

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Published: Oct 27, 2016