Editorial: Era of the Upscale

Fast feeders seek to elevate their brand experience, but will it work?

Abbie Westra, Director, Editorial, CSP

Branding on Wendy's new coffee concept

In journalism, reporters often look for three instances of something before deeming it a trend worthy of exploring. So if three make a trend, then what does six make?

That’s how many instances of fast feeders announcing plans to “upscale” their brands I read in the past week--two of which I recently experienced first-hand. As a consumer who’s equal parts highbrow and low, I question if these will be successful evolutions.

Some brands are focusing on modernizing their design, others on bringing in unique or higher-quality menu items. Take Taco Bell: CEO Greg Creed said at an investors’ conference a few weeks ago that the brand hopes to transform its perception from “food as fuel” to “food as experience.”

A Burger King in Singapore features a revamped design inspired by BK’s flame-grilled theme. Symbols of the backyard are brought inside through a plant-covered trellis ceiling, plant-pot pendant lamps and sofas upholstered with outdoor fabrics.

Wendy’s similarly opened a prototype store in Columbus, Ohio, with vast windows, natural materials, couches, a fireplace, free WiFi and Dave Thomas quotes on “freshness” adorning the walls.

McDonald’s last week gave a sneak peek at a new ad campaign touting its ingredients and the farmers and ranchers who raise them. CMO Neil Golden tweeted, “One thing we’re doing is telling our farm-to-fork story about our food.”

After reformulating its foundational menu, Domino’s is going upscale with its line of “artisan pizzas.” And White Castle continues its test of a noodle concept with items such as a spicy Asian chicken and noodle bowl.

There, that’s six.

No doubt, these brands have had a tumultuous few years. Commodity costs, continuing economic pressures upon their customers and increased competition from fast casual have left many companies struggling to stay fresh and relevant. It’s hard to please a population that’s demanding quality while pinching pennies. So kudos to them for getting aggressive and creative.

But I do question if upscaling is the right move--especially if it doesn’t carry through the entire experience.

On a recent trip to Columbus I checked out that new Wendy’s prototype. The interior indeed gave off a more inviting feel, at once modern and comfortable with a noticeable lack of the plastic that makes up most fast-food furniture. The location is also testing Wendy’s coffee program, Redhead Roasters, an undeniable response to the McCafe format.

My beef came with the food itself: It was nothing new. I ordered a drink that I believe was a mocha (I had a hard time translating the names of the coffee drinks, as did the sales associate) and the new W burger. The burger tasted like, well, a fast-food burger, and the mocha had some work to do to catch up to even McCafe’s consistent cup, let alone Starbucks.

I also checked out White Castle’s Laughing Noodle concept, 45 minutes west of Columbus in Springfield. This experience had the opposite effect--a brand trying something new on the menu, with the same old fast-food atmosphere. The pad Thai-inspired noodle bowl I tried was a commendable effort, but eating it inside a stark White Castle diminished the effects.

I understand the need for evolution, and that blurring channel lines have made maintaining, let alone growing, market share very difficult. But how will this upscaling affect these brands’ well-established roles in the foodservice landscape? How will it affect their existing customer bases?

At that same investors’ conference, Taco Bell’s Creed was asked whether the brand has lost customers to Chipotle or Qdoba. Creed said no, citing a recent study of 79 Taco Bell stores within two miles of a Chipotle that found fewer than 1% of customers ate at both chains. So does infusing your brand with a dose of the fast-casual experience really make sense?

I’m actually most intrigued by what Taco Bell will do in 2012. Yes, company execs are using phrases such as “food as experience.” But that experience isn’t commercials about its farmers and ranchers. It’s taco shells made out of Doritos. As a consumer with a place in her heart for both Chipotle and Taco Bell, I think this is a great way to stay fresh and relevant. Let me get my farm-to-table carnitas at Chipotle and my Dorito-shelled gordita at Taco Bell, and I’ll be one happy customer.

Abbie Westra, CSP/Winsight By Abbie Westra, Director, Editorial, CSP
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