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Sarah E Lockyer

Consumers' emotional connections to restaurants

Editor's Letter

Who doesn’t like talking about restaurants? Whether a great dinner out, a quick lunch during a road trip or a favorite breakfast pick-me-up during the work week, food has a way of working itself into conversations with family and friends more often than we probably realize.

I admittedly grew up in a food family. We were allowed to choose our favorite restaurants for our birthdays, we celebrated soccer team victories with a Ben & Jerry’s Vermonster, and a stop at McDonald’s either in the airport or at a highway oasis was a highlight of any trip.

Even today, when my family of seven — which grows to 16 when partners and nieces and nephews are counted — gets together for the holidays in Chicago, we become obsessive about our favorites. Trips to Portillo’s Hot Dogs are mandatory, and Chicago deep-dish pizza is debated — we are a family torn between Gino’s East and Lou Malnati’s.

I don’t think I’m alone in having these types of memories around restaurants and food. While we grow up, and our tastes expand, there is still a connection to our favorites. I can’t imagine a world without L’Atelier de Joël Robuchon in Paris, but I also can’t imagine never having the opportunity to bite into a Five Guys burger.

Our associations to restaurant brands — or all consumer brands, really — are both functional and emotional. Yes, we need to eat, and yes, we need clothes and shoes. But the brands that make us feel something are the ones that stand out — a decadent dinner, a new suit, those shoes you’ve always wanted.

Each year, the Nation’s Restaurant News Consumer Picks study reveals which restaurant brands are winning the hearts of consumers. The special report is massive. Not only does the study rank 154 chains, but it also sheds light on what today’s consumers are looking for from restaurants. The study finds that food quality, cleanliness, service and value remain the top must-haves across the entire restaurant universe. Following those, however, the emotional connections come into play — craveable menu items are wanted from limited-service chains, the atmosphere of casual-dining brands is important, and the menu variety at family-dining chains is paramount.

Once you get through the special report, you can almost hear the consumers talking: “I need that In-N-Out burger”; “I love sitting down at The Cheesecake Factory”; “Remember when me and grandpa both found what we wanted at Cracker Barrel?” Emotional connections clearly can drive dining-out decisions. 

But restaurants can’t count on memories alone, as they need to drive new visits to keep those sales trending positive. Playing a major role in any restaurant brand’s success is its reputation. While I may not have many experiences at Jack in the Box here in New York, I have friends or colleagues who can vouch for the experience. Today’s social media environment makes managing that reputation harder than before. Not only is customer feedback instant and wide reaching, but a rash of Twitter hacking has added a new level of complexity to brand management.

NRN’s Ron Ruggless explores the latest restaurant social media crisis, as Burger King’s Twitter account was hacked last month, with the perpetrators taking over the site with rival McDonald’s pictures and language. The story also outlines what restaurant brands should be doing to secure their social media brand presence, from password security to the development of a crisis plan. And yes, while social media messages may seem fun and frivolous, the accounts should be as protected as any other piece of corporate technology. One of the story’s sources, Paul Colombo, the director of technology at digital agency Deep Focus, summed it up well.

“While sensitive information may not be immediately at risk, brand perception and trust can be undermined in an instant,” he said.

I can’t imagine a more sensitive piece of corporate intelligence than the brand promise.

Contact Sarah E. Lockyer at [email protected].
Follow her on Twitter: @slockyerNRN.

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