Customer journeys, blind spots & burgers: Lessons from fast-food marketing

Customer journeys, blind spots & burgers: Lessons from fast-food marketing

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For marketers, customer journey analysis often results in accidental narcissism. Analytics are supposed to illuminate our blind spots, not reinforce our assumptions. The most useful customer journey to understand is the one that leads a consumer to your competitors’ cash register. And one of the best examples of this dynamic is the quick-serve restaurant (QSR) industry.

When you think about it, QSRs are a poster child for modern-day marketing challenges — and an incredible learning lab for how to address them.

Check it out. As an industry, QSRs are looking at single-digit growth at best, so the game is how to steal market share from competitors. They face increasing competition for “share of stomach” from outside their traditional category (adjacent segments, grocery stores and food trucks).

Some traditional golden rules still apply (taste, price, quality, convenience), but emerging innovations are rapidly resetting customer expectations. What’s more, unexpected moves from a competitor (limited-time offers, new product launches) can throw them out of an offensive game into a defensive one virtually overnight.

Sound familiar?

The short of it is, despite all the attention that “customer journeys” are getting as a marketing buzzword, QSRs remind us that the customer journey that’s most important to understand is the one that leads to somebody else’s cash register.

This is an incredibly important lesson to learn. As corporate executives become increasingly nervous about economic uncertainty, they become ever more impatient for mathematical reassurance.

But this anxiety leads to an accidental corporate narcissism. Much of the analysis companies do focuses on what brings customers into their own business, largely because that’s where most companies’ statistics are strongest.

But if the name of the game is stealing market share from competitors, the most important blind spots to illuminate are around what’s driving your competitor’s business, where they most impact your bottom line, which audiences they’re winning over and why. Across all verticals, this is the lens that turns a “nice-to-have” marketing insights report into a CEO “must-read.”

So how can marketers fine-tune their analytics game to shed light where it’s most needed? Here are a few lessons from QSR marketing:

1. Choose your battles
First things first — pick your fight. Are you looking to tackle a single competitor? Expand into an adjacent category or market segment? Win over a new demographic? Or are you just trying to understand what it takes to win, overall? Whatever battle you choose, find the KPI and analytics approach that best answers that question. Make sure it’s something your executives care about.

Remember, KPI doesn’t just stand for “key performance indicator”; it also stands for “key political incentive.”

Here, QSR is a wonderfully representative category, because QSR marketers have figured out that consumer spend is not an inexhaustible resource. They speak in terms of “share of stomach,” recognizing that a zero-sum game isn’t just about bringing customers into your store; it’s about grabbing them out of somebody else’s.

So if you want to understand what impact your competition is having on your business, park the brand studies and focus groups for a moment, and look for verifiable correlations between what they’re doing, where your customers are going and where they’re spending their money. Once you’ve keyed into the right data signals, you’re ready for some game-changing competitive reconnaissance that executives will want to sink their teeth into.

2. Shore up your defense
Brand strength scores mean nothing in a vacuum. What matters more is to understand where, when and which customers are most likely to go somewhere else — and why. With a more explanatory approach to analytics, marketers can figure out which competitive maneuvers are having an impact, which ones aren’t and what to do about it.

To do so, marketers must broaden their gaze beyond their own customer journey. If a company such as Taco Bell had focused only on its strengths, for example, we’d see nothing but tacos and burritos on the menu. The company recognized, however, that with coffee as a potent driver of purchase decisions, its morning-time competition isn’t limited to other taco joints; rather, its competition is anywhere with a drive-through, including places like Starbucks.

That’s one reason Taco Bell now serves premium coffee at breakfast — because the brand focused not only on areas where it’s already winning, but also on where to fortify.

3. Target competitive weak spots
Once you’re able to identify the signals that are most predictive of revenue success, you can strategically line up areas where your competitors are weak against areas where you’re already strong. Specifically, looking at demographics, affinities and product appeal often reveals the best play to call if you want to take share of wallet away from a competitor.

For example, over the last few years, Shake Shack, Five Guys and other “better burger chains” have stolen share from more traditional QSRs. It might seem intuitive for a marketer at Wendy’s to respond with a slew of burger-focused LTOs.

However, analysis by Quantifind, my employer, recently found that Wendy’s chicken sandwiches have become a bigger sales driver for the company as public health concerns have risen. While burgers may seem like the natural battleground, the data reveals that taking the fight sidewise to chicken gives traditional burger-oriented QSRs an edge.

Likewise, Burger King could have focused recent campaigns on drinks or fries, but instead, it has gained business with its new hot dogs, a menu item that its main competitors, such as McDonald’s, don’t offer.

If Wendy’s or Burger King had focused only on the biggest, most obvious targets, they’d be fighting uphill battles. But by also targeting blind spots that the marketplace isn’t serving, both brands have benefited.

4. Know when it’s not about marketing
Companies tend to know when their revenue is going up or down — but how often do they know why? Sometimes, the best solution a marketer can offer for flagging sales isn’t another campaign or creative strategy; it’s a strategically formulated request to the operations team.

For example, a QSR marketer might assume that falling profits involve inferior products or ineffective branding — and in some cases, that assumption might be correct. But Quantifind research has found that for many fast-food brands, customer aggravation over slow drive-through experiences has been steadily rising.

For some of these brands, marketing overhauls aren’t the core issue; operational inefficiency is.

What’s more, by understanding the relative importance of wait times and other operational issues at not only their own stores but competitors’ stores as well, QSRs are able to gain competitive ground where they have the most impact.

Takeaway questions:
What impact are competitors having on my bottom line, and how do I figure that out?
What are my marketing analytics telling me about my relative strengths and weaknesses against competitors, and where do I have the biggest blind spots?
How can I adjust my approach to marketing analytics to use it as a way to reveal my competitors’ hidden weaknesses?
How do I distinguish marketing’s impact on my business from other variables that affect the business, such as operational issues? What should I be asking for from operations, and what evidence can I present to win my case?

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