Brands Respond To The New Meaning Of Belonging

Larry LightNovember 28, 20235 min

We live in an uncertain world. We have become more skeptical and distrusting. Our environment seems unsettled, unpredictable and unstable. And, then, to magnify these feelings, we experienced Covid-19.

During the coronavirus pandemic, many behaviors and attitudes changed. Our desires for satisfaction of contradictory needs and wants grew stronger. We simply do not want to compromise. We are no longer willing to trade off. It seems as contradictions rule.

Brand-businesses that were strategically and culturally flexible – able to address our contradictory needs and wants – emerged successful from the siege of coronavirus. Managing paradoxes is now an essential strategic characteristic for brand-businesses in their quest for high quality revenue growth. The fast food industry has been particularly successful at managing in our post-pandemic paradox planet.

One of the most visible and game-changing paradoxes that brand-businesses face is the idea of Alone and Together. Or, as some brand-businesses call this, Connection and Disconnection. The Economist magazine calls this paradox the Hermit Consumer. The hermit consumer is someone who no longer has the stomach for services, as services involve directly dealing with other people.

Interestingly, certain behaviors honed during lockdowns have endured. The Economist observed that people increasingly eschew “up-close-and-personal services.” People work at least one day from home. People changed their attitudes about being social, opting for more solitary pursuits. The Economist concludes that, in general, Covid-19 pulled people apart.

The Economist’s data support a world of reduced in-person socialization. People changed their attitudes about being social, opting instead for more solitary pursuits. Or as another observer wrote, people emerged from the pandemic with less tolerance for interacting with strangers. As one consumer told a reporter, “I lean on that feeling of not wanting much interaction. Working from home for three years really zapped my social skills.”

But, at the same time, belonging still remains a strong human need. We just do “belonging” differently than we did pre-coronavirus. Managing the intersection of connection and disconnection is now a sign of brand-business leadership expertise and intelligence.

No industry has mastered the art of connection and disconnection better than the fast food industry. The New York Times heralds this force as the age of the drive-thru. The drive-thru allows for anonymity while someone at the window is focused only on you. Apparently, anything more personal, such as employees walking through the drive-thru lines taking orders is way too much “interaction” for some people. One customer told The New York Times, “I got out of the habit (of being social). I think I’m like a lot of people who just don’t necessarily like being social that much anymore.” Another customer responded, “I do the drive-thru so I can be antisocial.”

Here is how some fast food brand-businesses are managing the contradiction:

  • Chick-fil-A is planning a two-story four lane drive-thru that will be able to manage 75 cars at a time.
  • Taco Bell opened a store with no dining room and a kitchen on the second floor. On the ground floor, there are four drive-thru lanes. Three lanes are dedicated to delivery drivers and customer app-order pick-ups. The fourth lane is for drive-ins.
  • McDonald’s states that currently 40% of sales are from digital orders. McDonald’s recently opened a store in Dallas, TX, that has no dining room.
  • Shake Shack just opened a drive-thru option.
  • Popeye’s is cutting the size of its dining areas.

But, this new love of the drive-thru is drive-thru with a twist. Yes, consumers – mainly younger generations – prefer the drive-thru. But, just because they prefer being alone in their car does not mean they are alone. Posting the solitary experience on social media has become de rigeur.

Socializing the solitary is the new DTC. Previously, in marketing, DTC meant direct-to-consumer. Now, there is a subtle change: DTC means drive-thru-culture. And, drive-thru culture optimizes both feeling connected while being disconnected. The president of Taco Bell told The New York Times that Gen Z customers have made the drive-thru cool. Posting on TikTok while placing an order is now a usual occurrence.

One example of how belonging has changed is the video from a YouTube star. He and his pals visited drive-thru lanes of 100 different restaurant brands over the course of three days. The New York Times reported that the 23-minute video of this DTC garnered almost 10 millions views.

There is another dimension to the alone-together syndrome: safety. People felt unsafe during lockdowns and post-lockdowns. Drive throughs are safe. In the movie Apocalypse Now, when Frederic Forrest’s character, Chef, comes fac-to-face with a tiger in the Vietnamese jungle while picking mangoes, his fearful answer is, Never get off the boat.” Today’s mantra is “Never get out of the car.” One university student stated that she visits drive-thrus at last 8 times a week and posts her interactions on TikTok. She thinks that there is something about the car that makes her not want to get out of her car.

It is not just the drive-thru, though. Apparently kiosks are also favored by Millennial and Gen Z customers. According to QSR Web, 67% of Gen Z customers prefer kiosks to interacting with a crew member at a fast food store. Fifty-eight percent (58%) of Millennials agreed. Other data from Catering Insight shows that more than 60% of Millennials and nearly 80% of Gen Zers found using a kiosk easier to manage than reading a menu board.

For Gen X customers, a kiosk makes creating a custom order easy; a kiosk reduces ordering pressure; providing more time for browsing the menu; was easier to navigate and allowed the customer to track the order on the screen. And, you do not need to deal with crew members.

We accumulate masses of digital friends while we marginalize in-person interactions. Social media has been the leader in optimizing individualization and interconnectedness. Now, technology is allowing restaurants to challenge that leadership. Kiosks and drive-thrus are masters of the alone-together paradox. Take-out the food by yourself and spread the experience to the world.

The New York Times finds DTC as supported by the automobile. But, as kiosks show, there are ways to deliver alone but connected that do not necessarily need a car. Cars do isolate us but so do other technologies that help us avoid personal interaction. And, the web’s social media platforms deliver belonging, even if belonging is online only and not in real life.

The fast food industry has jumped on the band wagon of satisfying the need to be disconnected and connected at the same time. The desire to be anonymous while belonging to a digital world of recognition is a growing need. The ability to optimize these contradictory needs is changing the world of fast food. What industry will be next?

Contributed to Branding Strategy Insider by: Larry Light, Author of The Paradox Planet: Creating Brand Experiences For The Age Of I

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