The Sunday papers brought news (or the Sunday pixels if you prefer) of the demise of two mega-marketing institutions. Teens driving — plummeting like a stone in the Detroit River and casual dining, your Olive Gardens and Applebee’s and Chili’s — as cold as yesterday’s mashed potatoes. If you don’t believe it, look at the numbers. Thirty years ago nearly half of 16-year-olds had a driver’s license. By 2010, that figure had slipped to 28%, from no less a source than the University of Michigan. As for midprice sit-down restaurants, our fellow Americans have cut nearly 600 million annual visits from their dining out menus in the past FOUR years! (That’s a lotta breadsticks!)
But, despite the trends, there are still zillions of people partaking in both of these pursuits. Consider, for the Applebee crowd, there were still 6.4 billion (with a ‘B’) visits last year. But industry sources in both categories have real reasons to be concerned. Lots of paychecks. Lots of economic growth. Lots of lettuce for cars and restaurants.
The blame, to read the stories, lies with the lack of adapting to new ‘trends,’ lack of technological innovation, etc. etc. etc. All true. But I would argue that the biggest problem is a lack of focus on what MEANING these products MUST PROVIDE to their audiences to remain relevant. No magic, just listening — really listening — to what people WANT and NEED. The trick here, is not actually asking prospective customers what they want, because as we all know they don’t have the language to express it, but finding out what are the ESSENTIAL MEANING PLUSES these categories can connect to in their prospects. Cost is a concern, yes. But there are tricks. McDonald’s has had lots of success with its dollar menu — loss leaders that build traffic. Also, in the food category, looking at the brands that are taking off in the upwardly direction, and discerning what MEANINGS they are delivering, beyond price. Chipotle and 4 Rivers, in the food arena, for example have grown visits by 8% last year. And those places aren’t that cheap. They are doing something else right. Connecting. But I already said that. As for 16-year-olds and cars. Well, smartphones are cutting in, no question. But you can’t make out in the back seat of a smartphone. Last time I checked anyway.
I’m not saying tin garbage cans and funky fun cars are the answer. In fact, I am in no way qualified to come up with the answer. I’ve never been to an Applebee’s or an Olive Garden. But lots of people have. They are the ones, if you get them opening up, who have the answers.
Rocket science? Hardly. Just basic home cooking. Planning-wise.