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Virtually every food ingredient that becomes part of a guest's dining experience arrives at the restaurant's back door in a branded package. But rarely does that brand name make it onto a menu.
For beverages, the opposite is true. Nearly every beverage is branded on the menu, and customers like it that way. Everyone from beverage industry researchers to restaurant operators says patrons choose recognized beverage names because their personal experience says they’re delicious. Others point to brand appeal as recognition of geographical preference and sometimes anchor those choices to nostalgia.
“Brands can signify quality and inspire confidence,” says Rob Wengel, senior vice president and managing director of innovation at Nielsen Co. Referring to the findings in Nielsen’s 2015 Global New Product Innovation Survey, Wengel says, “For a consumer with limited disposable income, the potential loss from an underperforming product is magnified. As a result, they’re sometimes even willing to pay more for brands they trust.”
That’s a powerful incentive for restaurant operators to give guests safe choices, says Ira Blumenthal, a beverage brand consultant and president of CO-OPPORTUNITIES in Kennesaw, Georgia. He says that while consumers always pick restaurants based on foods they crave and not beverages, once they’re inside, they seek beverages they know.
Operators continue to offer multiple varieties of soda, yet soda is no longer the only refreshing beverage that customers desire. Eateries pour out a dizzying array of choices — among them iced, cold-brewed and nitro-pushed coffees, energy drinks, nutrient-added waters, citrus juices, boutique teas, kombucha and many others — that in some cases are the actual attractions.
But in many cases, “Brand names clearly drive the drink purchase decision,” Blumenthal says.
Blumenthal says such strong brand allegiance rarely happens with center-of-the-plate food items, partly because restaurants don’t brand those items.
“When have you ever seen a [meat supplier's name brand] on the menu?” he says. “But you can give consumers who aren’t even savvy two soft drinks that look the same, and they can tell you the difference.”
Many restaurants use convenient, easy-to-make beverages, such as iced tea or lemonade — sometimes brewed or freshly squeezed --- other times made from concentrates — and brand them as their own. Some also give them a small flavor twist to extend that uniqueness without adding much cost to those drinks.
Atlanta, Georgia-based McAlister’s Deli has a well established reputation for its “sweet tea,” a product it celebrates with an annual Free Tea Day. In 2016, its 361 units gave away 435,000 glasses of what some might deem an ordinary beverage. But according to the chain’s president, Paul Macaluso, being identified as a “McAlister’s Tea Freak” boosts guest engagement with the brand, as well as sales of the amber Southern staple. The chain has diversified its tea line by offering fruit purees made of strawberry, wildberry and peach, and selling the tea by the glass and the gallon.
According to Shannon Salupo, corporate beverage manager at 50-unit Quaker Steak & Lube in Westlake, Ohio, flavored concentrates are used to bump up the pizzazz in still and carbonated water-based drinks. It strongly promotes its Original Lube-N-Ade (hand-squeezed lemonade, flavored or home-style) and its proprietary Lube Old Tyme Root Beer, branded sippers she says deepen the brand’s unique identity.
Blumenthal believes that’s a good strategy, calling such beverages “more signature products than branded products, or maybe call it internally branded.” But he adds that restaurant companies can only go so far.
“I don’t think anyone would be interested in drinking a cola-based soft drink without a brand on it,” he says. Recalling one such experiment many years ago, he says McDonald’s franchisees in the United Kingdom even tried such a test, but it failed. “They were playing around with McCola, but it didn’t work because it wasn’t a brand in the traditional sense.”
The bottom line is when it comes to beverages, customer choices skew toward brands they know and already love.
“It’s a comfort-level choice,” Blumenthal says. “People pick what they know.”