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A new study conducted by New York-based brand and customer loyalty and engagement consultancy, Brand Keys ( has shown that demographics and associated core values of generational cohorts explain critical factors initiating failure of fast food brands to increase same-store sales and profits and driving the success (and concomitant increase in visitation – and profits) of fast-casual brands.

The 3,000-consumer study examined attitudes and behaviors of 1,000 consumers in each of three generational cohorts – Baby Boomers, Gen X, and Millennials – as regards fast food and fast-casual restaurants. The sample was drawn and balanced from the 9 U.S. Census regions and examined major National brands.

If you have any doubts as regards the difficulties fast food brands have been having over the recent couple of years, you only have to look at recently reported same-store sales of the big guys, McDonald’s, Burger King, and Taco Bell to see the shift that’s taking place. The declines reported by the big-3 correlate very highly with the downward loyalty shifts we saw in our January 2014 Customer Loyalty Engagement Index, with fast food brands losing loyalty. And as loyalty is a leading-indicator of profitability, it isn’t surprising that fast food visitation and associated profitability is down too. QED.

The survey conducted in the 3rd Quarter of 2014 identified the following insights as regards visits to the traditional fast food chains and fast-casual restaurants. (BTW, the nomenclature “chains” for fast food and “restaurants” for fast-casuals came out of the study. “Storytelling” may be the flavor of the month, but nothing beats seeing what language a consumer uses to describe a brand. We mean, would you rather eat at a “chain” or a “restaurant”? Yeah, exactly!)

Baby Boomers Want Better Service and Believe They Deserve It. Oh, And They Can Pay For It!

Baby Boomers reported an 18% decrease in fast food restaurant visitation. Not surprisingly, this group placed extraordinarily high values on health, but also living well. They can afford, what nearly a third of the sample (32%) called, “quality food,” something that they attribute more to the fast-casual restaurants like Panera and Chipolte than they do to the traditional fast food brands.

The survey showed that Baby Boomers also expect better service, something the traditional fast food chains have fallen down on in recent years, not being as fast as they used to be. Expectations in, well, everything, just get higher and higher each year, and expectations as regards speed of service is up too. This group reported a 20% increase in visitation to fast-casual restaurants, with 65% indicating high expectations of “excellent service” and 58% indicating that their expectations were met by the fast-casual brands. Baby Boomers (along with Millennials) indicated that interior design was a critical difference between fast food and fast-casual too.

Among the National brands examined, Baby Boomers’ top-3 carte du jour were located at Panera, Au Bon Pain, and Applebee’s.

Gen X Looking for Value-For Dollar

Gen Xers reported an 11% decrease in visitation to fast food restaurants – the lowest decline in the three groups examined – but with an equal increase reported in visitation to fast-casuals, so pretty much a wash.

The Gen X group turns out to be more pragmatic about their decisions about eating out, so they seem to still be more vulnerable to value positioning. But they’re also skeptical about brands too, and are looking not for price-value, but value-for-dollar. They feel the fast-casuals offer that to them too, equal to and more often better than the fast food brands. Nearly 50% of this cohort reported that time was important to them so “fast” has it’s advantages for them. But years of experience and process-engineering pretty much guarantees you don’t have wait long at a Panera either.

Gen X’s top-3 selections included Subway, Chipolte, and Au Bon Pain.

Millennials Not Interested In “Dollar Food”

Millennials reported a 20% decrease in visits to fast food chains, with 13% indicting that they felt fast food was, indeed, “edible” but not much more than that. Forty-two percent (42%) reported increased visits to fast-casual restaurants in the past year. Millennials are, perhaps, our most sophisticated segment right now. They also mentioned interior design as an important element of choice, with nearly a quarter of the sample (23%) postulating that how the restaurant looked gave them a sense that the brand “knew what they were doing.”

True, they’re the toughest to reach via traditional marketing à la McDonald’s et. al., and they are the toughest group with whom to build loyalty. But when asked to characterize traditional fast food brands, more than half of this group (53%) called it “dollar food,” the result of a habituated reliance of traditional fast food brands on the ‘Dollar Menu’ to boost sales. The thing is, you can’t build brand meaning or loyalty on the basis of price. That only works for commodities.

Virtually all this group (89%) reported looking for fast, casual food that they deemed tastier, healthier (22% indicated the ingredients in fast–casual offerings were “of higher quality” and ingredients were more “trustworthy”), and more customized than fast food. “There’s an issue with this group regarding how they value what they eat too. For them, fast-casual restaurants offer better, more customizable options. Nearly half the sample (48%) indicated that fast-casual was “worth more” – and they were willing to pay more for it. And, according to the reported sales figures, apparently are. And while it’s true that digital and mobile behavior has changed – particularly for Millennials – more mobile apps and outreach aren’t going to change how they see the brands.

Millennials top-3 menus were located at Chipolte, Five Guys Burgers, and Panera.

Sure, consumers in all the cohorts have definite expectations about eating out, and some of them even overlap, but a new McWrap isn’t going to do it for them. Not in and of itself. The traditional fast food brands have tried to be all things to all customers for years now and the results should have informed them long ago how that was going to turn out. Longer menus have just resulted in longer waits, but more significantly, a real dilution of what the brand means.

Your brand may be all over, but you can’t be all things. You really do have to stand for something in the mind of the consumer. And it really ought to be something other than “dollar food.” Otherwise loyalty for fast food brands is only going to move in one direction. Down.


Find out more about what makes customer loyalty happen and how Brand Keys metrics is able to predict future consumer behavior: Visit our YouTube channel to learn more about Brand Keys methodology, applications and case studies.

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