How to take advantage of menu labeling's marketing potential

Aug. 5, 2010

When the U.S. House of Representatives passed its sweeping health care reform bill in March, many in the restaurant industry – including the National Restaurant Association, applauded the bill’s provision that requires calorie labeling on chain restaurant menus, menu boards, and drive-thru displays.

The legislation applies to chains with 20 or more outlets and will be enacted beginning in 2011.

As with any new legislation, there are plenty of naysayers. But there are also plenty of industry insiders welcoming the change. Jeff Sinelli, founder and chief vibe officer of Which Wich and founder of Burguesa Burger, shared his thoughts thoughts with about how the impending legislation will affect his business – and the restaurant industry – for the better. However, he also cautions against relying solely on the industry to provide nutritional education.

Lori Walderich, chief creative officer at IdeaStudio, a chain restaurant marketing and promotions firm, also applauds the impending mandate from a marketing perspective. She shares her point-of-view and suggests quick-service restaurants take full advantage of their branding potential:

So, I’m having lunch with a friend the other day at Panera Bread. The weather being ridiculously hot (as good an excuse as any), I decide to splurge on a Frozen Mocha, since Panera arguably whips up the best anywhere.

As I stand at the counter awaiting delivery of this guilty pleasure, I sort of wonder, well, just how guilty it really is. I see that Panera is already posting calorie counts on their menu board: Frozen Mocha, 570. No cold drink could’ve been more chilling than that number.

My experience at Panera got me thinking ... Not just about my food choices, but about the process of selection and how pending menu labeling requirements will affect the choice of millions of Americans, as well as countless restaurants that serve their gustatory whims.

Obviously, the quick-service restaurant industry faces formidable challenges as nutritional numbers start popping up on menu boards. Of course, most of this information has been available for years - if consumers were sufficiently motivated to dig it up on websites. Most weren’t.

In my case, I had a vague recollection that I’d looked up Frozen Mocha once and found that it had sort of a lot of calories. But the number on Panera’s menu board was much higher than I remembered.

And that’s the thing. There’s vaguely remembering something you read somewhere once, and 570 in your face as you decide whether to get a sugary chocolate delight or a just plain iced coffee with skim.

And actually, this decision-making process is where opportunity emerges for QSRs that get their R&D and marketing departments to sit down together and collaborate (they might want to hide the knives, first).

You see, what every R&D expert knows is that consumers love great taste and mouth feel, not low calorie counts. But what every marketer knows is that consumers compare. Everything.


Also, though they may think they never do, consumers compromise constantly. As menu boards add nutritionals, consumers will make comparisons and seek compromises. The QSR that embraces this truth will gain a competitive advantage.

For proof, look no further than Cooking Light, an empire carved out of culinary compromise. Typical recipe makeovers show readers how to cut the calories in Nonna’s famous tiramisu without making it taste like upholstery foam.

The editors know it’s not the new number but the comparison to the old one that grabs the reader. And very, very importantly, they know not to push radical new health foods down their readers’ throats because all they really want is something a little less guilt inducing.

The same is true for QSRs. A better approach is to lighten a little in R&D, then compare like crazy in marketing and advertising.

Compare lighter new items to original versions, which you can leave on the menu or phase out. Compare to your competitors’ versions, too — the menu labeling mandate offers a prime opportunity for brand challenge.

I, for one, am rethinking my love for Frozen Mocha. Panera doesn’t market a lighter version, but Starbucks does. And if their 140-calorie Mocha Light Frappuccino doesn’t knock my socks off in quite the same way, I at least know I’ll be able to bend over to pull them up.

Lori Walderich is chief creative officer at IdeaStudio, a chain restaurant marketing and promotions firm. Her company helps restaurant clients align their branding and implement strategic marketing plans to achieve consistent, sustainable growth.

Topics: Business Strategy and Profitability , Marketing / Branding / Promotion , Policy / Legislation

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