In recent years, the fast food industry has had a tough time keeping its consumer base. With new, fast-casual concepts popping up everywhere offering healthier alternatives to the traditional burger, consumers began demanding more low-calorie options, and the industry was forced to make changes.
The world’s No. 1 fast food chain has tried to respond to the times on the healthy eating front. McDonald’s introduced low-calorie grilled artisan chicken sandwiches and began offering Cuties, a brand of clementines, with their kid’s meals. In fact, much of its focus has been on improving the quality of Happy Meals by reducing the amount of calories, fat and salt. As of this year, for example, cheeseburgers are available in them only upon request. Still, compared to other fast food chains, McDonald’s is actually is one of the healthiest, according to Health Magazine.
While health-conscience attempts have kept the fast food business afloat, a new report reveals it’s not the industry’s meal offerings, but rather the emotional connection to its consumer base that has turned things around.
In fact, the fast food industry as a whole improved its emotional connection with consumers in 2018, moving up from eighth to sixth place in the annual Brand Intimacy Report, which is the largest study of brands based on emotions and released by brand agency, MBLM. According to the Brand Intimacy Report, the top three restaurants leading the industry this year are Starbucks, Chick-fil-A and Chipotle, respectively.
“The Starbucks brand continuously seeks to improve its offerings and deepen customer bonds, from capitalizing on food trends, optimizing its app, personalizing its services and creating a space for people to connect with others,” said Mario Natarelli, managing partner at MBLM. “Despite some well-publicized missteps this year, the brand handled those transparently, and continuously seeks to emphasize its social responsibility. Other brands in the industry can learn from this trailblazer on how to build more robust, lasting bonds.”
The Brand Intimacy report notes that the most dominant archetype people have regarding their relationship with fast food brands is indulgence.
“Indulgence describes a brand relationship centered on moments of pampering and gratification,” said Natarelli “This can certainly be a positive and powerful association.”
While the trend toward healthier fast food is likely to continue, the MBLM report further indicates the pressure is on to preserve the quality and meaning of the brand experience.
Meanwhile, it is notable that U.S. restaurant traffic – fast food and otherwise – is declining, and increasing sales are really a story of price hikes. The affordability gap between eating out and home cooking is widening. It’s what’s behind the current trend of eating in, and meal kits (think Blue Apron), food deliveries and food prep appliances have been the response.
That’s the trend which Chick-fil-A (ranked second in MBLM’s report) has opted to seize on, selling chicken meal packages – make your own chicken parmesan or enchiladas in 30 minutes – at 150 of its Atlanta stores for $15.89. The chain’s Michael Patrick, who’s leading the project, told Bloomberg he thought the kits would boost sales. And, he added, “There’s an emotional connection to cooking.” And the kits may spark a more intimate relationship with the Chick-fil-A brand, as well.