10 branding lessons from In-N-Out Burger

In-N-Out BurgerI’m not a junk food junkie by any stretch, but when I’m in California, I often give in to In-N-Out Burger. I can’t help myself. There’s so much about this chain I admire.
 
  1. Focus - As a branding nut, I’m always slack-jawed at the visible menu: three types of burgers, french fries, fountain drinks and milkshakes. That’s it. (They have a “secret menu,” but you have to visit their web site to know about it). Most people buy off the menu, savoring sandwiches like the famous “Double-Double.”  Less has proven more:  best guesstimates reveal $200+ million in annual revenues across 180 locations. 
  2. Differentiate – Burgers are commodities, competitors are everywhere. But In-N-Out Burger made itself special. They understand that competitors are actually prospects and consumers are looking for more than just a good hamburger.  
  3. Happy employees – Realizing they’re not a burger business, but a service business, In-N-Out hires people who are "naturally friendly" (as one manager put it) and can share positive vibes with customers. The chain is one of the only fast food operations paying more than state and federally-mandated minimum wage guidelines (they pay over $10 per hour). Free meals and shakes are given to employees and everyone is treated right. No wonder smiles run rampant.  
  4. Do good – In-N-Out Burger helps make the world a better place in each In-N-Out Burger Menucommunity and via their Foundation which is focused on helping abused and neglected children.  
  5. Clear mission – They wrote their mission statement 60 years ago; it still guides them today: “Give customers the freshest, highest quality foods you can buy and provide them with friendly service in a sparkling clean environment.” We can all learn a lesson when authoring our own.  
  6. Independent view – They’ve never franchised and have been privately held since being founded in 1948. In-N-Out isn’t afraid to express the personal values of its owners: discreet bible verses are printed on drink cups and wrappers. Despite being a fast food, they’re still considered cool: when pursuing a new restaurant in San Fran’s Fisherman’s Wharf, community leaders approved them over corporate giants because they were viewed as a local, family owned business.  
  7. Subtle not overt – The chain hasn’t spent much on advertising over the years, preferring, instead, to build its brand via authentic word-of-mouth. This bottom-up approach has built a global community of converts: many people who visit California mention In-N-Out as a memorable take-away experience.  
  8. Loyalty – In-N-Out gets how consumer loyalty is built through steadily repeated positive individual experiences. Despite its low-end category, the chain is steadily rated as one of the top restaurants
  9. Cult-like popularity – The company motto is “Quality you can taste.” Sure, they’re serving up burgers, fries and shakes, basic stuff, but it tastes healthier than the usual fare. Even Fast Food Nation commended it for its natural, fresh, local ingredients.  
  10. Connection – All this adds up to a personal brand experience built on adjectives (cool, great, caring) not nouns (burgers, restaurants, revenues). It’s emotional branding at its best.

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