The key question restaurant chains need to answer today is, “How will I appeal to today and tomorrow’s customers, while delivering consistency and relevancy?” It is interesting that the book I wrote in 2008 on the importance of creating a sense of belonging for brands remains more relevant today in helping to answer this very question. Belonging Experiences: Designing Engaged Brands was about creating a sense of belonging for consumers, and was well ahead of the emerging trends of personalization and the emergence of Millennial consumer needs. However, there remained a key question that was not answered in my initial hypothesis that drove the need for further insights, namely: “Where is the right balance between a restaurant chain’s need for conformity and the ability to meet the local needs of customers?”
We conducted a study to try and understand this question and find some answers, and some of the insights were rather insightful. For example, the study determined that community is as much about respect for the patrons’ needs as it is about fitting into the neighborhood. This is an expectation that needs to be met first before restaurant operators can evolve to better fit within the community. The study provided clarity on the importance of fitting in and how this can drive brand loyalty, a key metric of the health of any organization.
One of the most telling responses was an equally high rating on the quality of the food and the perceived comfortableness of the restaurant: these criteria were ranked as the most critical in both Canada and the U.S. when it comes to choosing a place to eat. These two factors, along with convenience, were reinforced throughout the study as being the cost of entry for restaurants. What this tells us is that the quality of the food is not more important than the experience, that both of those factors are absolutely critical.
The study also highlights some key differences between the Canadian and American diner, such as a preference among Americans for chain restaurants not to feel like chains, with Canadians placing a higher importance on locally sourced ingredients. There are also demographic differences, with Millennials (who eat out more frequently than their Boomer and Gen X counterparts) showing more interest in using technology to order and pay. However, across the board a sense of place was ranked consistently high for a preferred dining experience, and this includes the fast casual and casual categories. In this article, I discuss the role of community and a sense of belonging, and how food service operators can learn from the insights we discovered in our research.