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Familiarity As A Brand Strategy

January 14, 2019

Paris, France smallI was in Paris once and ran into a family of American tourists. They had just arrived that very day and were tired, stressed and hungry from their travels. They asked me if I knew anywhere good to eat. First of all, this was Paris. There’s good food everywhere. Serving a bad meal in France is practically a capital offense. But this family was really in luck because I knew just the place. “Yes!” I was happy to help, “I happen to know a fantastic little bistro right around the corner from here. Ask for Marcel. He speaks English. He’ll take good care of you.” But all I got from them were blank stares. Then the mom explained they were hoping for a restaurant more like from home – something like McDonalds. Such is the power of branding that Micky-D’s was their top choice in a city world famous for its spectacular gastronomy. After parting, I felt sorry for this family. I kept thinking of them as missing out on a wonderful life experience, sampling Parisian cuisine. And I started wondering how McDonalds does it. How does their brand wield such power so far from home? But of course I knew the answer because for one week of my life McDonalds held that kind of sway over me, and it was when I was traveling.

When I left the east coast to drive out to California, I stopped at my aunt’s house to say goodbye. She had a parting gift for me, a book of McDonalds coupons to use while I was on the road. It certainly wasn’t my strategy to eat every meal at McDonalds. But it was a thoughtful gift and I thanked her sincerely. Then I climbed into my huge, old, Ford Econoline van that contained all my worldly possessions and hit the road, aiming the lumbering beast westward.

A few hours later, I was barreling down the highway, windows rolled down, radio turned up, loud. I was in a great mood, heading towards what I was sure would be a great, new chapter in my young life. California! I was eager, I was excited and I didn’t want to stop. But I was hungry. Then I spied the golden arches up ahead and remembered the coupons. I could stop in there, use the bathroom, grab a meal to go and be back on the road before the engine cooled down. So that’s what I did.

Later that night, I pulled into a motel. I was dog-tired from driving all day and, again, hungry. Guess what red-and-yellow fast food joint was right across the street? That’s right. I had my second McDonalds meal of the day as a late-night dinner in my room.

By my third day of driving, if I saw a sign that said “McDonalds – 5 miles ahead”, I would start salivating like one of Pavlov’s dogs. And I started to think about that. I liked the food OK but it wasn’t my favorite kind of food. Why was I craving it all the time? And why was I eating so much of it when I knew that a McDonalds-all-the-time diet was certainly not the healthiest choice? Was I addicted? Did they sprinkle heroin in their secret sauce?

By my fourth day of driving, I figured it out. It wasn’t really the food. It was the familiarity.

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Sure, the food has something to do with it but it wasn’t anything as obvious as the taste of it or the price (it was free to me). It was the familiarity of the food that made it so attractive. State after state, mile after mile, location after location, I knew exactly what my Quarter-Pounder with cheese, my fries and my chocolate shake were going to taste like. One mile away and I could sense my teeth sinking into the burger, I could savor the salty fries, I could feel the granular texture of the milkshake.

But the familiarity didn’t end with the food. I knew McDonalds was going be freeway close with easy access to on and off ramps. I wasn’t going to have to steer my van of dubious roadworthiness through unfamiliar streets looking for a diner that looked reputable in a neighborhood that looked safe. And I knew McD’s would have a big parking lot with plenty of room to park the beast that didn’t easily fit into a single spot.

I knew McDonalds would have clean bathrooms. Funny how important that becomes when you’re on the road. And I knew there would be a clean table for me if I wanted to stretch my legs and not eat behind the wheel. I was eating exclusively at McDonalds because they made it so easy for this traveler to do so. They were literally catering to my every need, not just my hunger pangs.

McD franchises smallI learned later that this was very much by design. Early on in their brand development, McDonalds recognized the importance of providing an identical brand experience at every location, all across the country. They knew people will always tend toward the familiar, especially when far from home in an unrecognizable environment. So they spare no effort to ensure that McDonalds experience is delivered by every franchisee. So much so, that if a franchisee fails to so deliver, they swoop in for an immediate retraining program. Repeated failures are cause for removal. The chain simply takes over and manages the location itself. Imagine the energy, discipline and work ethic it must take to deliver that exact same experience in 120 countries, in more than 36,000 locations, through about 375,000 employees! Admit it. That’s really hard to do.

There’s a lesson here for all us brand strategists. Think of how you can build a modicum of familiarity into your customer’s experience. Crackerjack had a little toy in every box. Snapple had trivia on the underside of its bottle caps. Some websites today provide a little bit of entertainment while asking you to wait for a large page to download. If you have repeat customers or clients, what can you do to make every encounter with your brand seem familiar – seem like it feels like “home”? Figure that out and you’ll get people walking right past the competition to knock on your door.

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Join Kevin Walker for a discussion on brand strategy for restaurants. At the Western Foodservice & Hospitality Expo, Los Angeles Convention Center, August 27, 1:00 PM.

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