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Customers want brands that make them feel content, connected

Customers want brands that make them feel content, connected

Necessity may still drive some purchase decisions, but, increasingly, consumers are looking to fulfill emotional needs when they pull out their wallets.

After decades of splurging, consumers have become professionals at pursuing their material goods and are nowadays much more discriminating in what they buy. They are no longer looking to merely acquire, but increasingly desire more visceral experiences when they spend money.

Certainly, the tough economy has led consumers to stop buying for the sake of buying and instead to more carefully consider the experience they seek.

“The economy has heightened consumers’ emotions around how they want to spend their dollars and who they want to spend [them] with,” said Michelle Barry, senior vice president of the Hartman Group, a Bellevue, Wash.-based consulting firm specializing in foodservice.

But the downturn alone is not entirely responsible for the shift toward consumers’ more spiritual aspirations, Barry said. Since the 1960s and 1970s, Americans as a whole have begun shedding some of their seriousness and adopted a more playful demeanor. They are more cynical about brands, more anti-establishment and not quite so ideologically driven as they once were. For instance, today the pursuit of health and wellness is not about abstinence, but about finding balance and doing activities consumers deem fun.

Consumers want to feel happy — a sense of joy, empowerment and vibrancy. And given a world filled with events and variables beyond mortal control, they also seek to feel safe, connected, relaxed and cared for when they make purchases. The restaurant brands that can play to those desires are poised to prosper.

Help me belong

Trend guru Faith Popcorn calls it “clanning,” or the desire to belong to a group with feelings, causes or ideals that validate one’s own.

The popularity of Twitter and Facebook reflect this need.

“After all, what are our tweets, our blogs, our posts, our clubs, memberships, even our searches, if not the desire to find others with common interests, tastes, values, wants and needs?” she said on her website.

For restaurateurs, that means creating their own welcoming community, said Chris Tripoli, president of A La Carte Foodservice Consulting Group in Houston. “Customers want to feel they belong and go where they belong,” he said. “They need to leave feeling that they were appreciated and recognized.”

Upscale restaurants have long stressed such personalized practices as table visits, but operators in other segments are learning the importance of personal touches. For instance, in the quick-service segment, employees at Lenny’s Sub Shop, a Memphis, Tenn.-based sandwich chain, walk around the dining room offering drink refills, and some McDonald’s units print customers’ names on receipts so employees can use them during transactions, Tripoli said.

Give me a break

Given a world that runs on a 24/7 basis, more patrons are looking to their dining occasions to deliver a break in their day.

The personalized service that creates a feeling of belonging and importance also can help people relax and feel that they are stepping away from the frenetic pace of their lives, Tripoli said. 

Environment can further help patrons relax. While upscale operators have long provided an oasis from the daily grind, fast-casual and quick-service operators also are paying closer attention to their environments. Tripoli pointed to Skyline Deli, a small Houston-based sandwich chain located in office buildings, whose operator recently embellished his de cor with warm colors and music.

Surprise me

Even as consumers want to unwind, they also want to feel a sense of exhilaration in their purchases. Years of shopping sprees have left many bored and looking to fulfill something beyond basic needs, observers said.

Henry Mason, head of research and analysis at, a London-based consumer research group, says his firm calls it “maturialism.”

Today’s experienced consumers are “able to handle [many] more honest conversations, more daring innovations, more quirky flavors, more risqué experiences,” he said.

In a related vein, more consumers are becoming what calls “transumers,” or those who value experiences more than material goods and are constantly in search of an unexpected thrill.

Mason points to the growing trend of pop-up retail outlets as playing to the consumers’ desire for the unexpected. He also noted that Burger King’s Whopper Bar is a departure from the norm that fuels excitement with its numerous toppings, sauces and beer offerings. 

Product innovation is another way to surprise customers, Tripoli said. Operators should stagger new items to keep people interested. Another option is to repackage offerings into special deals, such as an express lunch or dinner for $24. “There’s an innate interest in humans to always want what’s next,” he said. 

Make me feel happy

Today’s consumers are increasingly playful, and they want their purchases to fuel that emotion, said The Hartman Group’s Barry.

The Millennials, a collectively happy bunch, are driving that playfulness as their need to enjoy life and feel alive infects the purchasing behavior of older generations, Barry said.

“Today’s kids have been shopping for a long time by the time they move out,” she said. “They’ve been shopping for years and have a whole different perspective on purchasing.”

They seek humor and a sense of levity, she added, pointing to the popularity of cupcake concepts. Among the brands that successfully evoke feelings of happiness are Apple, Geico, Zappos and Ben & Jerry’s, Barry said.

“Consumers just believe Apple makes them happy,” she said. “A lot of it is connected to great design. Its products are user-friendly.”

Enhancing the positive feelings associated with brands such as Apple and Ben & Jerry’s are perceptions of quality, Barry said. Consumers believe that the people who work at those companies are happy, and “they want to be part of something optimistic,” she said. “There’s an eagerness to be part of these experiences.”

Care about my world

The importance of localization can’t be overstated, say observers who note that the trend extends beyond the origin of foods.

“People want to feel a connection around local — and it’s not just where the food came from,” Barry said. “It’s connecting people; it’s notions of place; processes; it’s the importance of good stories like you see more often on menus and packages.”

Popcorn calls the trend Lo-Co, or Local Cocooning, and points to the proliferation of community-supported agriculture programs, in which consumers buy shares and receive regular deliveries of fruits and vegetables. 

Along with the desire to feel connected and authentic is the consumer’s need to feel loved. Consumers want to know the brands they support care about them and their communities, Tripoli said. “Smart operators are making a big deal out of caring,” he said. “They sponsor blood drives or promote recycling.”

He noted that such philanthropic efforts not only showcase citizenship, but also reinforce the customer’s importance. “It’s about giving back to the community,” he said. “If you’re not doing that, you’re missing the boat.”

Contact Robin Lee Allen at [email protected].

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