A Crash Course in Fast Food Marketing

I was going to an Arby's for lunch the other day (terrible of me, I know), and I found a sign on the door sternly informing me that the restroom was for customers only, and that this is so they can keep their prices down, by minimizing labor and materials they have to spend on their restroom.

At first glance, this seems like a fine idea. If you're not patronizing the establishment, it seems kind of irresponsible to come in, use their bathroom, then bail entirely.

But at second glance, how much money do you think they spend, on a yearly basis, on people who come in to use the bathroom, but don't buy anything? How many of those people would be deterred by a tersely worded sign on the front door? I would be stunned if they spent more than $20 a year on labor and supplies for a restroom used by people who would be honestly deterred by that sign. Is the $20 they save worth the callous impression that that sign left me with? Probably not. The good will of people who might be put off by that sign is probably worth more than the money they'd spend on the restroom.

But at a third glance, when was the last time you went to a fast food establishment, and honestly took the demeanor of the staff into account? When I go to eat fast food, I go because it'll be quick, and I know exactly what I'll get. Whether or not the cashier is a surly pimply faced teenager doesn't really enter into my mind.

And yet, in my neighborhood, there's a Wendy's that, for one reason or another, constantly attracts interesting and friendly people, from the old lady (now deceased, sadly) who would come by to clean up your table and ask you how your day was, to the dozen or so World War II fighter pilots that get together there on Wednesdays to talk old war stories. That is the only fast food establishment I've ever intentionally chosen to go to for any reason other than convenience or a particular craving, so I can't truthfully say that the callous sign on the front of the Arby's would actually ever deter my business, so maybe it's not a bad idea after all.

Arby's just doesn't have my goodwill. They don't have any ill will on my part, but the Arby's brand is in every way value neutral in my mind. A sign telling me that the restroom is for customers only doesn't really hurt their brand in my head, but a sign saying, “Restrooms open to everyone!” wouldn't exactly engender a meaningful amount of good will either.

The simple fact of the matter is that fast food restaurants don't really make any of their business by having much of a brand. Some people go to Jack in the Box because they have some free floating attachment to the idea of Jack in the Box, but truthfully, most people go because it's either the closest, or they prefer Jack in the Box food to other similar offerings. If you wanted fast food, would you honestly go to another location because your first choice didn't open their bathrooms to people who weren't customers?

Business 101 teaches you that cutting non-essential costs means more revenue, and Marketing 101 teaches you that establishing goodwill towards your brand is worth quite a bit of money, but Marketing 102 teaches you that if you don't have a brand in the first place, half measures probably aren't worth it.

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