The Neuromarketing of Burgers
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:
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.
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.
One 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 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?
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!