The big interview: Love is in the air

The big interview: Love is in the air

Fast food and fast coffee leads the way when it comes to showing what it takes not just to succeed, but to be loved, in a difficult world, Scott Dodgson account director for market researcher Savanta tells Jane Renton…

Who are the best out of home food and beverage brands on the high street, the ones that make people want to continually want to return and spend their hard-earned cash? The answer is not based on financial performance (though there is a correlation), but rather on the percentage of 100,000 customers from across a diverse range of demographics and age-groups who click ‘love’ on a seven-point scale when asked to describe their opinion or reaction to a familiar brand.

The Savanta BrandVue report, The Top 100 Most Loved Eating Out Brands 2019, in conjunction with H2o Publishing, the parent company behind Ooh magazine, has thrown up some startling findings about just what it takes to generate brand love in a notoriously fickle and arguably over-supplied market. This particular survey, based as it is on specific drivers of brand love, contrast sharply in its results when compared to other, more familiar key performance indicators, such as net promoter score (NPS). NPS, on which Savanta based its research in 2018, revealed that customers’ brand advocacy was more shaped by rational factors, such as deliciousness of food, or freshness of ingredients.

Love drivers, the report’s authors conclude, are less rational but more emotional, as love is always personal and less definable. The Savanta analysis includes love drivers that include prompt and friendly service, as well as restaurant ambience.

While money can’t buy you love, it can be invested in great service, innovation and the creation of atmosphere – all the things that create brand love in customers and crucially increase average customer frequency. The frequency of visit per customer, even in small chains, adds up to make a tangible difference to profits. “Let’s not forget that the more people who experience a great experience will tell others about it and those recommendations are still the main reason to try out a new venue,” says Scott Dodgson, account director for BrandVue Eating Out, Savanta’s market intelligence platform.

The brands that made it into the top 100 brand loves in 2019 reflect a fairly diverse mix of foodservice operators, companies in diverse sectors such as quick-service restaurants (QSRs), pubs, casual dining and coffee chains. However, the established fast-food chains and major coffee shops still dominate something that appears to confound more recent reports of major growth spurts by the smaller, more nimble new challengers in both fields. It also suggests that many of the major players in this field, including KFC, and coffee chains such as Costa have fought back with innovation in both technology and menus.

The Savanta league table places McDonald’s – the big granddaddy of them all – extremely high up, with one in five people loving the brand. Similarly, QSR brands Subway and KFC fared well. Coffee and coffee plus grab and go also dominated, with Costa, Nando’s, Greggs and Creams Café all finishing in impressive positions.

Serving coffee alone, however, is not enough. The advent of grab and go concepts, offering both fresh and hot menu items along with hot drinks, has resulted in the big coffee chains rethinking their approach to food. The report highlights Caffe Nero’s recent trialling of a Deli Kitchen range at some of its sites.

Costa’s position as the nation’s favourite coffee shop appears to be assured. The sheer scale of its operations, with 2,500 outlets spread across the UK – a greater proportion than its nearest rivals, Starbucks, with 1,000, and Caffe Nero, with 700 – appeared to be the foundation on which its success and brand love is based.

But it wasn’t just the older established and possibly cheaper brands that made all the running. There were plenty of new challenger businesses that were included, such as fast-casual chain Five Guys, to make it to the higher echelons of the top 100 survey. “They’re a pretty homogenous bunch,” says Dodgson. “We have challenger brands as well as legacy businesses.”

As Dodgson points out, however, there are several similarities in its approach, which includes an emphasis on attention to detail and innovation, and a focus on its core proposition, quality of delivery and customisation. “Take Five Guys and its emphasis on quality,” he says. “How many times do they hand wash their fries? The quality of its burgers in second to none and so is the endless customised toppings it offers.”

Similarly, McDonald’s, just 10 years ago, was regarded as being a somewhat tired old brand. It has reinvented itself by focusing on its core offering, but also adding new healthy ranges to its menu. It has introduced new innovative technology too; in its case kiosks and screens, shifting functional ordering onto the customer, putting them in control of the process while allowing for a greater degree of individual customisation.

As the report points out, McDonald’s frequently adds new items to its menus, but at the front and centre are its limited edition items, such as the Double Quarter Pounder, Chilli Chicken Nuggets and regional burgers. “These create a sense of urgency and, in the age of FOMO, there is not an emotion more lucrative,” it states. “But they are all tied in with the simple premise: a burger and fries.”

The report’s authors also paid tribute to the emphasis and good effect to which McDonald’s used out of home advertising, whether on billboards, bus stops, or on road signs, ushering you to the next store or drive-through. “The brand sets the example of how OOH should be used by the big operations, always in relation to the nearest restaurant, or the newest release, while reminding consumers of the core offer true to every outlet,” it says.

Surprisingly, while value for money is seen as the top experiential driver of brand love, price alone does not feature strongly. “This is potentially because focusing on price is too functional when it comes to determining what consumers regard as true brand affinity,” asserts Dodgson.

Speed of service, quality of service, friendliness of staff, quality of ingredients, and flavour of the food were all deemed to be more important. “The brand, however, needs to be reflected in all aspects of the business,” says Dodgson.

The cleanliness and the tidiness also matters, as does the atmosphere and ambience. However, décor doesn’t need to cost the earth but does need to be “on-brand”, and the atmosphere aligned to the overarching proposition, whether it be bustling and loud, or quiet and enveloping, the report confirms.

What is also striking is that strong flavours emerge as a more important prerequisite in brand love than quality of ingredients. The perceived healthiness and freshness of ingredients are deemed to be relatively unimportant. “While quality should run through the whole food offering, not just through new menu editions, there is an emphasis on comfort, which perhaps explains why so many fast-food burger and chicken brands are loved by customers,” says Dodgson.

The familiarity and consistency, combined with convenience, clearly plays a big part in their success, though many brands in the QSR field have also embraced growing trends such as veganism and alternative proteins.

A similar approach has been adopted by Greggs, which continues to offer a wide range of traditional bakery products but also its new innovative and much lauded vegan sausage roll. “It should be no surprise that Greggs has seen an uplift in brand love this year,” the report states.

Love, they often say, is blind. It is also fickle, so engendering it and sustaining it through the years should be a perpetual challenge. Love lost cannot readily be regained.

As Dodgson reminds us, we should “never lose sight of our core brand values”. They need to permeate the DNA of everything we do. As the last two years have shown us, there are several rejected, flabby, worn out past loves out there that lost that brand focus, never to rediscover it.

Savanta is part of the Next15 Group. To access the full report, visit here or contact [email protected]