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  • Dianna Feng

Not just cheap and yummy: How QSRs can drive loyalty in tough times

With US student loan repayments restarting this fall, it’s no surprise that spending habits among Gen Z and Millennials are anticipated to change. While some experts are optimistic about consumer spending, others are already seeing “warning signs” that buyers will ultimately pull back with budgets under pressure. As wallets tighten, the role of food and Quick Serve Restaurants (QSRs) comes into view as an important source of functional and emotional fuel.

As many begin to look at where and how they can cut back on daily expenses, food and grocery come to mind. Just recently, a colleague of mine came across a pack of 4 chicken thighs for $24. You could argue that those are just New York City prices, but over the weekend in New Jersey I found my favorite frozen gyoza to be $12.19, up from the $5.99 I remember just a few months ago. Even my go-to college pizza joint in Pittsburgh, a city known for its affordability, went from charging $5 to $11.99 for a large pie… and that’s with a “cash discount”!

On the surface, food is a functional need. We need to eat to survive, and when we’re under pressure – whether it’s time or money – sometimes, what we eat doesn’t matter as much. In most urban areas, QSRs are often close to one another and priced within a similar range. But they have a larger role to play beyond function, as deciding between a cheap meal from Wendy’s and a cheap meal from Taco Bell can be a subtle yet powerful emotional choice.

Fast food will likely aim to remain affordable in financially tight times, posing the question:

Beyond affordability, how can QSRs make it easy for customers to choose them, especially during financial stress of student loan repayments? How can their offerings meet the emotional needs of the humans that buy from them?

This could look like having staff who greet them with a warm welcome and remember their name or order, making them feel special when they’ve had a tough day at work. It could be enabling them to stick to a strict budget and feel smart when they’ve done so with creative pricing options, or taking them back to the comfort of childhood by temporarily bringing back a discontinued menu item.

When prices and offerings are about the same, these emotional experiences can be the ones that drive a decision. I’m sure we’ve all been around friends passionately debating which fast food burger is better, and it’s usually not just about the burger. Heck, I have plenty of queer friends who still eat at Chick-fil-A just because they can get a tasty, affordable chicken sandwich in the presence of comforting, cheerful staff – and sometimes, going to Chick-fil-A might just be the easiest way to bring some joy to the day.

It’s not news that food can be a deeply emotional choice, but it’s something brands should continue to keep in mind to make their offerings enticing against competitors as budgets tighten and mindsets shift.

Take these examples from my own experience as a human and researcher. While personal, they reflect the human experience of dining in a QSR that brands can attune themselves towards when seeking to make a greater impact in financially stressful times.

McDonald’s in Oxford Circle, Philadelphia, recently replaced by Mi Ranchiro Mexican Grill after years of vacancy. Photo from LoopNet.

McDonald’s is a brand that has an extraordinary relationship with some of its consumers. I’ve done research on this topic with multicultural Gen Zers and Millennials who shared stories like my own: As an Asian American growing up in a low-income immigrant household, McDonald's was, and still is, incredibly special. It sounds silly, but it’s the first American meal I recall having as a child, and a special “treat” allowed once in a blue moon when we had the money to dine out.

My childhood McDonald’s was an empty lot the last time I visited, but I’ll never forget one summer’s day when I was three or four, and my mother was reluctant to run our ACs at home for fear of driving up our electricity bill, so she took us to the air-conditioned McDonald’s to share a single Big Mac meal. With our meal, we got our medium fries in a vibrant red paper carton instead of the flimsy, white baggie they usually use for small orders, and my sister and I were able to choose any soda we wanted instead of opting for a water cup (or nothing to drink at all). When I was a little older – maybe eight or nine – McDonald’s released their Neopets Happy Meals, and my mother would reward me with one when I did well in school; a rare toy my parents would have been reluctant to buy otherwise.

When I go to McDonald’s today as an adult who earns her own money, it certainly is because I had a rough day and don’t have the energy to cook or wait for UberEats to deliver. Sometimes, it is because I’ve just spent a bit too much on vet bills that week. But underneath the surface, it is also the comfort and security of my childhood memories with McDonald’s that makes the choice easy, and in moments where I feel stressed, I need that choice to be easy.

QDOBA, formerly on the University of Pittsburgh's Oakland campus, which now houses CHiKN. Photo from Yelp.

QDOBA is another QSR that delivers a meaningful emotional experience – not only through the comforting warmth of their food, but also through the restaurant design. Before the QDOBA on my college campus closed, the ability to accommodate a large party (about half a floor of students in my dorm) and the semi-privacy of booth seating made it a go-to when we weren’t in the mood for the dining hall, but wanted somewhere comfortable to groan about our freshman woes. It became like a second living room, where we didn’t have to worry about being rushed off at a table-serve restaurant, and had enough space for friends to continuously join.

Providing something as powerful as home-like comfort isn’t easy in an industry built on being fast and efficient – but as a result of QDOBA combating the slightly impersonal efficiency of many competitors, it has the potential to unlock unique loyalty in the industry.

As Gen Z and Millennials' spending priorities shift, it’s important to consider the overall human experience that can build loyalty, memories, and position your brand as a source of reliable, affordable comfort.

Below are a few thought starters for QSR brands looking to connect and built loyalty with their audience:

  • Beyond affordability, how can you make that choice easy for your customers under the financial stress of student loan repayments?

  • What emotional assets does your brand already have that you can you tap into and highlight as part of your unique offering?

  • Finally, what are the stories and memories made with your brand that can make it more human?

    • How can you leverage those so that they have a reason to choose you over a competitor beyond the student years?

From human to human,


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