The Neuromarketing of Burgers


Five Guys Menu

There’s hardly a shortage of places to buy hamburgers in the US, but the restaurant chain Five Guys has opened 300 stores in the last five years, and has contracts for many more. Locally, I’d been hearing about the fantastic hamburgers and fries at Five Guys for months, and finally ventured inside to see what has allowed the chain to grow in a seemingly saturated market. What I found were very good burgers and even better applied neuromarketing. In one short visit, I saw a variety of different techniques, most of which I’ve written about in past posts:

Minimalist Menu

As shown in the photo, Five Guys is totally focused on one entree, the hamburger, and one side dish, french fries. One alternate entree, a hot dog, is also available. The only decisions for the burger buyer to make are one or two patties, and whether to add cheese or bacon. All other condiments are free.

This may be a great strategy from a food quality standpoint – you only have to focus on getting a few things right. That simplifies inventory, preparation, training, and so on while helping ensure fresh ingredients. In addition, having such a small selection of products reduces customer indecision and may actually boost sales. In More Choices, Fewer Sales, I describe research showing that customers presented with fewer choices in a retail environment bought greater quantities of product.

The Power of FREE!

One reason the menu at Five Guys can be so simple is that they give away all their toppings. While most restaurants include simple condiments like ketchup and mustard at no charge, they commonly expand their menu with higher-priced offerings like a “deluxe” burger (with tomato and lettuce) or a “grilled mushroom burger.” Five Guys, though, proudly proclaims, “All Toppings FREE” and includes premium dressings like grilled onions, grilled mushrooms, tomatoes, and more. Marketers have known about the seductive pull of “FREE” for decades, and, as I described in The Power of FREE!, more recent research bears out the potency of that single word.

Including the condiments at no charge also takes some of the buying pain out of the process, too. When restaurants overprice add-on items, they may enhance their margins but they also cause a twinge of “paying pain” when the customer reluctantly antes up the extra money to add a slice of tomato. Give even more expensive burger dressings away for free, and the value proposition is further strengthened.

Five Guys Zagat

Setting Expectations

I have never seen a restaurant that posted so many reviews so prominently. Their wall decor includes Zagat and other ratings as shown in the photo. A third of their paper takeout menu is devoted to the same thing. Even the rest rooms feature “review” decor. The neuromarketing strategy at work here is setting expectations to improve the customer experience. Brain scans show that wine thought to be expensive really does taste better than wine thought to be cheap, even when it is identical. (See Why Expensive Wine Tastes Better. By the time you actually bite into your burger or fries, you’ll have been exposed to numerous messages telling you how superb the Five Guys’ burger and fries are. Your expectations have been set, and, if the burger is actually good, you may find it to be VERY good based on those expectations.

Five Guys Potato SourceOne other way Five Guys sets expectations is by declaring the geographic source of the day’s pototoes on a hand-written sign. Before visiting this store, I’d never given much thought to the terroir of my spuds.

Social Proof

Social proof is a theory that suggests we base our response to a situation based on how others react to it. (See Google and Your Brain Part 2 for a more in-depth discussion of social proof.) A busy restaurant provides the social feedback needed for others to conclude (even subconsciously) that the food must be good. And the Five Guys outlet I visited was indeed bustling. But Five Guys also provides social proof even when a restaurant isn’t busy by posting their “survey” wins, like:
– “Reader’s Choice” #1 Hamburger ’99 thru ’08, Washingtonian Magazine
– Voted Best Burger in Baltimore – ’07, AOL City Guide
– Voted Best Burger in Delaware, Delaware Today Magazine
Even if you had doubts when you walked in the door, all those burger lovers in other places can’t be wrong… Right?

Five Guys Potato Bags

Sensory Selling

Every restaurant impacts the senses in various ways, often quite good ways (e.g., the smell of cooking food). One particularly clever approach by Five Guys emphasizes the freshness of their product in a visual and tactile way: to show that they use only fresh potatoes, they line up bags of the spuds where the customers queue up to order. Sure, they could just put up a sign that says, “We don’t use frozen potatoes like all the other guys,” but building a wall of potato bags drives that point home far more effectively by going straight to our subsconcious.

Brain Food, Sort Of

I doubt if Five Guys consulted any neuroscientists when they were choosing their menu items, but they might as well have done so. There’s plenty of evidence that fat-laden foods like burgers and fries interact with our brain in a special way. Some recent research, for example, shows why we keep eating when we know we should stop – the fats suppress our normal appetite-suppressing signals! And here I thought it was just my lack of will power that kept me gobbling that Five Guys fare…

A Memorable Dining Experience

Scientist/foodie/blogger Darya Pino reports on other relevant research in Fatty Foods Enhance Memory By Same Mechanism As Emotional Learning. She reports on research that showed, “digesting fatty foods enhances memory consolidation using the same neural pathway as emotional learning.” This makes fat-laden meals potentially more memorable than others.

Recipe for Success

Clearly, the Five Guys strategy is working. Even President Obama is a fan, as reported by USA Today in Fast-growing Five Guys burger chain sticks to basic, fresh food. In fact, it may just be the oleoylethanolamide effect, but all this thinking about my last meal at Five Guys has convinced me it’s time for some more on-site research!

  1. Yusuf Clack says

    Great post. Thanks. Your explanation of the Minimalist approach reminded me of Southwest only using one type of aircraft originally. (not sure if that has changed) but it made maintenance so much more efficient.

    1. Roger Dooley says

      There’s certainly a practical advantage to simplicity, but be sure to read More Choices, Fewer Sales to see the decision-making significance of having only a small number of products. When I worked in direct marketing, I always thought offering the widest possible range of products was a great customer benefit, but research shows that can actually reduce sales.


  2. Jennifer says

    I ate there today. Delicious. Now I am craving one again already. Whatever they are doing…it’s working.

    1. Roger Dooley says

      Must be those fat-enhanced memories, Jennifer!

  3. Tom Wanek says

    Insightful post Roger. The Flip Video Camera has used simplicity in a similar fashion to take over its industry. Point and shoot technology. Pocket-sized. No cords. No confusing menus.

    Now, more people are using video cameras simply because they’re easier to use.

  4. Jorge Barba says

    Brilliant overview. How would these principles apply to designing wecommerce websites or any type of interactive website Some of these tactics could be used in some way right?

  5. Ron Wright says

    Simce residing in the hometown of Five Guys for 20+ years, I can confirm the amazing growth and consumer devotion to the chain here. FG is an institution in Washington (as you mentioned with all the local Foodie awards) and has a higher favorable rating than any of the other institutions in this town!

    Thanks for the post and insight Roger.

  6. Ce says

    This is a fantastic post–I’ve already retweeted it and look forward to perusing all of your links. Thanks for sharing!

  7. Tom Wueste says

    Great post, examples of neuromarketing all around. Five Guys is new to San Antonio but it is getting good reviews. (Unfortunately, I am not a fan of fries or burgers I can’t order medium rare.)

    1. Roger Dooley says

      Thanks, Tom, I didn’t know they restricted the degree of doneness… Their lawyers made ’em do it, no doubt. I think as with any marketing effort, even clever steps like these only take you so far. The product and service still have to be very good to build a long-term customer base.


  8. Jane says

    I find it fascinating to apply this model to internet marketing. They have mastered the art of the freebie, and the managing expectations (testimonials) although I’m not so sure everyone has got simplicity yet!

    1. Roger Dooley says

      Simplicity may not work best in every situation, Jane. Amazon is successful in part because they offer more products than anyone else. To their credit, they offer a variety of ways to sort through the vast number of products and achieve some measure of simplicity.


  9. Mark Earls says

    Nice post, Roger.

    But just playing devil’s advocate for a moment – does the neuroscience really add anything other than confirm what we know from other disciplines? Choice architecture is well dealt with by all kinds of folk from behavioral economists Thaler & Sunstein to Nick Chater at UCL London. Equally, social proof is documented by a number of other folk in different fields. And as for the fresh produce display…isn’t this what Fritolay are doing with their chips brands?

    I’m not sure if I’d have been allowed a free hand, I’d have designed the restaurant experience any different myself

    It’s nice to know that neuroscience is confirming what is known already, but what does it add here?

    1. Roger Dooley says

      Mark, here we use a liberal definition of “neuromarketing” to include not just brain scan ad analysis but also behavioral research. Ultimately, it’s all one discipline, with the brain scans and other neuroscience techniques showing what is happening inside the black box.


  10. Cindy Graves says

    Great article. And I LOVE Five Guys! Reminds me of a running joke in our family (we have 3 daughters)

    Dad: What do you girls want for lunch?
    Middle Daughter: Lindsay (oldest) wants 5 Guys.
    Youngest Daughter: Five? She can’t even get one!

    Hope this brings a smile to you today.

  11. cbrancheau says

    Spot on Roger, for all reasons listed above!

    Kitchen simplicity makes for a better more consistent product and shorter training cycles. Simplicity helps speed too.

    Quality and freshness queues set the expectation. Like you have said in the past, “Let me smell it, see it, hear it.”

    The inline assets don’t hurt the margins any, either.

    I am sure that the fat satiates the palate, ‘sides it tastes good! This has become my husband’s favorite hamburger experience and that is saying something from an old hardened fast food dog.

  12. Ian Addie says

    Fascinating! and completely backs up my personal opinion of McDonalds menu boards ,which I’d dearly love to research, and which are, in the UK at least, impossible to navigate and leave me defaulting to a Big Mac meal even if I fancy a change just because under the time pressure I can’t figure out what the alternatives are.

    1. Roger Dooley says

      Don’t forget the social pressure, Ian. Ask a question like, “What’s on a Big Mac?” and there will be much grumbling and rolling of eyes in line behind you. 🙂


  13. Kris Colvin says

    This is why I just love you and follow you around like a puppy who knows you have a biscuit in your pocket, Roger. This is an awesome examination of the finer and subliminal details going on at 5 Guys. I have never been, and everyone raves about them in KC. I will DEFINITELY be going to a new one that opened near my city casa and will be sure to keep my eyes wide open at the experience. Thanks for these gems of insight!

  14. Roger Dooley says

    Thanks, Kris, glad you enjoyed the post. That was my own first visit to a Five Guys, and I was struck by how different it was from most burger places. Most of the differences had sound marketing behind them, too.


  15. aj says

    Why both IN-N-OUT & Five Guys use red and white colors? Any ideas?

    1. Roger Dooley says

      McDonalds too, for that matter.

  16. Ricci says

    Hello Roger! Very nice post. I’ve seen Five Guys in the Arboretum in Austin but haven’t taken the time to stop in – yet 🙂

    Talk soon –


  17. Charlie says

    When Dave Thomas took over as general manager for the Colonel, KFC had 5 restaurants and 105 menu items. He slashed that to about 5 menu items, and it was the first great fast food chain he built (the second was Wendy’s, of course).

    Been to KFC recently? Looks like the corporate approach is going toward 105 items again!

  18. Arianna says

    What an great post Roger, im trying to make a tesis about how neuromarketing strategies are apply in Ecuador, but im lost, i dont know where to start and what to prove!
    Ecuador has Mac Donalds, Burger King, KFC, and I wanted to know are they also using neuromarketing? and what about companies like Nestle,or Unilever?

    1. Roger Dooley says

      Most companies don’t discuss their use of neuromarketing or other specific techniques, so I can’t comment on the firms you mention, Arianna. And I doubt the Five Guys considers what they are doing to be “neuromarketing” – I’m sure they would say that these are simply common sense marketing and branding techniques. Good luck with your thesis!


  19. Arianna says

    Thanks roger you are right! I was thinking too, that they will not discuss their use of neuromarketing techniques.
    The thing is, they ask me to write about an specific topic on neuromarketing, and prove it, and they gave me an idea: Talk about neuromarketing in Ecuador or United States.
    But what can I write about?
    I will think of something… but
    Thanks Roger 🙂 really!!

  20. Roger Dooley says

    Arianna, one company that has gone public with their use of neuromarketing is Campbell soup – check out


  21. How to Get Pregnant Gal says

    HaHa! I adore Five Guys! The fries are the best. The toppings are always so fresh too.

  22. Shilpa Nicodemus (@shilpanicodemus) says

    I agree with most of the points in this article. However, I don’t agree with your section “Brain Food, Sort Of”. It’s not fat that “suppresses our normal appetite-suppressing signals”; it’s sugar combined with fat. Fat actually releases satiety-inducing hormones (e.g. leptin, CCK). It’s when you combine sugar with fat that you end up with all kinds of insulin-induced bizarre feeding behavior. Point of fact: the reference you cite which is from Science Daily is referring to the study here: I’ve read the article and the rats on a “high fat diet” consisted of about 60% carbohydrate, 20% fat, and 20% protein. That’s not a high fat diet, not by any stretch.
    TL, DR: it’s the fat + sugar, not fat alone that makes a person eat a ton at Five Guys

    1. Roger Dooley says

      Thanks for that insight, Shilpa. From what I’m reading, sugar is actually a bigger dietary hazard than fat, though obviously excessive fat consumption isn’t a good thing.


  23. Kian says

    Great post

    I also read somewhere( I can’t remember where) that the fact that they throw in extra fries, more that what the cup can hold, gives costumers a feeling of getting something more that what they paid for. It’s a nice trick and I’m sure it works.

    1. Roger Dooley says

      That makes total sense, Kian. One could even adjust the packaging to make the same amount of fries overflow the capacity.

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