What In N Out knows that Others Don't

Christine Edgington

Strategy Director & Partner

So here is the magic trick... We take a seemingly identical product and put it in a completely over saturated marketplace at a low price. Let's add to this by providing only a handful of options for people to choose from and oh yeah....you can't advertise. So how would this concept not only work, but get people to wait over 3 hours for a fast food burger? Branding is the answer.
In N Out opened up not a stone's throw from my house, and I have been watching a line wrapped around the building from open to close for the past month (they have 3 on site cops at all times directing traffic and have roped off about a quarter of the entire strip center's parking lot). This included a few weeks ago while no lie tornado sirens were going off, but customers could not be deterred even during severe weather. So what's the big deal?
For starters, scarcity is definitely a big help to their mystique. In N Out has been slowly expanding where others would have grabbed at every opportunity to grow. To quote Rock N Rolla "Greed is blind, and it doesn't know when to stop." Most fast food concepts live by this model and made their mega-billions by this mass expansion once a concept has proven itself. In every town within a certain radius I can drive past 15 Jack in the Box/Burger King/McDonalds etc. and they become part of the white noise scenery of the city.
This is not to say that within the confines of California, In N Out has not received a sizable foothold, but a listing of all locations can still fit on a four page handout. The organization has explained lack of expansion due to the distance from its own meat processing facility. That's right, they make all of their own patties and deliver these daily to their stores. They even claim, "we don’t even own a microwave, heat lamp, or freezer."
Which brings us to the next point, quality. Whether this rational is true or not, it doesn't really matter. The seed is planted in people's brain they are receiving a much fresher higher quality cut of meat, fixins and fries. Don't underestimate the power of this. Perceived quality can be one of the biggest factors in what something actually tastes like to the consumers themselves. Don't believe me? Then make a restaurant with only white walls and dirty floors and ask people what they think of the food. It will actual change the taste for them even if it is only a mental reaction.
This brings us back to branding. I always tell my clients that taglines are one of the most useless things ever if you don't LIVE what you are actually claiming. Don't tell me you are funny, just make me laugh. In N Out's tag is "Quality you can taste".... nothing too flashy or amazing, but what is impressive is what they have managed to do with it. You hold out expansion because you REFUSE to hurt the quality of a $3 burger? Sounds weird when you say it like that, but it is all part of a mental image of the quality that I can expect when I go to In N Out (even if that quality is all in my head).
Another interesting piece of information about the In N Out cult following, they really take care of their people. There are some brands that we just simply like better because of a positive perception about how they treat their own.
The night before the big unveiling of In N Out I saw droves of cars all around the building. It looked like they were having a giant party, which I assumed would be composed of magazine writers, local foodies, news outlets and potentially some local big wigs. However, when I drove by I asked the cop what was going on.
He told me, "Oh In N Out is throwing a party for all of the staff and their families."
When I looked around, the massive crowd was filled with high school kids and their parents. I shook my head, smiled and drove away with a really good feeling. Whether we like to think so or not, how you treat and take care of your own team can have a huge effect on what people think about your brand externally (think Walmart...). In N Out knows the power of creating a dedicated and loyal group of individuals that actually think it is cool to work there within the new communities they join.
So what does all of this mean? I get asked all of the time if we do advertising, and In N Out is one of my favorite examples on why we don't. With a solid brand and well placed strategies for messaging (direct and perceived), expansion, look and feel and external communications, a well thought out brand is much more powerful and resonating than anything I can slap on a billboard. Why am I hungry all of the sudden?
Christine Edgington

Strategy Director & Partner



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