Take yourself out of the game

15 Aug

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A recent article in USA Today says, “Innovations beyond a chain’s usual fare can build sales by helping to quash the “veto vote,” the person in a group who can stop or divert a fast-food run because they don’t want a burger or chicken or pizza. If all three items and more are on the same menu, it can thwart the trip-killer.”

What many establishments from FSR’s to QSR’s are not realizing is that it is not necessarily about adding more items to a menu to drive traffic. Factors that made consumers rejecters or even lapsed users in the first place will still be there  if not now even more apparent. The additions of more menu items to a already stressed menu can cause a kitchen and staff to implode. Operationally, failure to understand the fundamentals of where problems occur in the fist place such as with speed of service and basic customer service allow “ticked off” consumers to strongly voice their opinions in this social era for all to see. The huge snowball effect of negative W.O.M can destroy any hope for reaping the rewards of menu innovation. 

It is also important to understand that while we are in a “one size fits all” society, the addition of a thai salad to an Italian restaurants menu doesn’t make sense. While Packaged Facts, NPD, Mintel, and leading sources state that consumers are seeking alternative and “ethnic” flavors on menus – those flavors must stay within reason. If it strays from the sanctity of the brand itself, it’s probably not a good idea.

Pizza Hut is a prime example of this; they have been in the Pizza business since 1958. While yes, the addition of pasta to the menu is within the realm of italian food the break to add more items to the menu when they were already losing market share to Papa Johns, Dominos, and mom and pop stores was not smart. What would have been smart is to do a few things: 1) clean up the stores, 2) focus on pizza itself (figure out why they were losing market share in the first place – was it a crust issue? sauce issue? service?), 3) remodel – most of the stores were still very 1980’s era, 4) figure out if operationally they could actually deliver on pasta 

The addition of pasta while it seemed like the right thing to do in – Brain Niccol (CMO of Pizza Hut) stated that instead of insisting that “we’re only in the pizza business,” Niccol says, Pizza Hut is now asking consumers what they want the chain to sell, and when. They should have probably figured out that even though a few focus group respondents loved the idea of pasta on the menu it strayed from what they always were as a brand. I’m all for innovation, but there is a fine line that must be walked when considering innovation – In-N-Out would never start serving ribs just because it’s very Americana. 

Customers tend to tell you in groups and other research that they would like to see everything under the sun on a menu. What we as brand teams must understand is that it’s not necessarily what they say, it’s the non-verbal cues. Do they all stop and wait a few moments before answering a question? Does the group follow the lead of the posturing leader of the pack? Do they say that a menu item is a great idea but do not even touch it or tend to fork through it when it’s placed in front of them?

These are all questions that food brands from QSR to FSR must ask themselves. Do menu additions cancel a veto vote if they stray from what the brand is? Do they cancel the veto vote if the establishment can’t deliver on the fundamentals of their business?

Restaurants know that they must change with the times. Consumer tastes, particularly for better-for-you foods, have evolved in recent years. Yet, the question remains; should pizza hut have gone down the quality of product (better crust, organic tomatoes, pepperoni from a little town in Sicily ) instead of quantity of menu items to turn business around? 

Image: Paxton Holley

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