The Menu Is the Message

February 25, 2012

Ever go to one of those restaurants with the 20 page menu?  They have everything you can think of and more, from pecan encrusted orange roughy to vegetarian chili.  So why is it you have such a hard time trying to order?  And why do you feel more pressure making the decision rather than being relieved at the choices.

Do you go to one of those restaurants for the breadth of choice?  Hardly!  It is just something you encounter when you arrive that causes you some anxiety.

What about the opposite: Restaurants like Five Guys or In-n-Out Burgers?  Both of these offer hamburgers and cheeseburgers with fries.  There is some variety of topping combinations, but that’s about it.

Simplicity is something we always strive to achieve in advertising.  The more complex the proposition to the consumer is, the harder to communicate it; the harder the argument is for the consumer to understand; and by extension, the less effective it is in convincing the viewer what we want to get them to do.

With menus there are added factors: the more items to prepare, more chance for mistakes that upset customers, more inventory to carry and more food waste.  These add to costs.

From a marketing point of view, the larger the menu, the less focus there is on what the restaurant stands for.  How many Sushi & Pizza places are there?  Or Pho & Taco stands?  Lack of focus often translates to potential customers as lack of quality and then lack of interest.

We admire the extreme simplicity of a Five Guys type menu but few establishments have the courage to stay with so simple a menu.  McDonalds started out with such a simple menu but has not been able to stem the tide of added items in the hopes of increased sales.  Some items were unsuccessful and a few were successful.  Over time McDonalds migrated from being a hamburger place to being a kid oriented restaurant with a large menu of salads, sandwiches, pastries, sides and more.

As sales sank, McDonalds tried to recover with low priced items.  It took years to crawl out of the hole that tried to generate business on price primarily. It is only now repositioning itself to what it wants to be now, McCafe, as the baby boom ended and adults become more important.  But simplicity is a horse that long ago left McDonalds barn.

Did other restaurants learn from this?  No, there is still a pressing desire from most restaurant and franchise owners to expand their menu. We have done limited time product offerings for many restaurants.  Invariably, if the offers are successful, it is hard to get them off the menu.  It’s like menus are magnets for new entries.

But the more you add the harder it is to drop the dogs off the list.  A cleansing of menus is a great marketing project for restaurant owners.  You will find no loss in sales by dropping off odd items, but profitability should increase.

Customers say they want more choice, but too many choices is no choice at all.

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