Friday, June 24, 2011

The caped designer

Restaurant chains tend to cycle through their superstars. If one of the brands uncorks a hot ad campaign, the whole pack is soon howling for a marketing Moses to lead them out of a sales slump. Six months later, a headquarters mob is chasing that hero out the door, and the wistful speak of a tall, dashing CFO on horseback to turn the battle.

And so it goes, through ops wizards, menu-development masters, even high-charisma CEOs.

These days, the plea to X-Men headquarters is for a definite type of restaurant mastermind. The dude or dudette most in demand has nothing to do with food, service, training or finance. Typically they won’t even be part of the company, and their weapons of choice included cloth swaths, artist renderings and schematics.

Welcome to the age of the caped designer.

We don’t even know who these restaurant heroes are. But we’ll soon see their work. With few exceptions, the major fast-food chains are set to undergo what once-heralded marketers call a design upgrade.

Here’s just a partial list of who’s taking the plunge: McDonald’s, Wendy’s, Chick-fil-A, Jack in the Box, Burger King (though some questions have been raised on that one), Subway, Pizza Inn, Fazoli’s, Starbucks.

The stated goal of each is to add some sophistication to the brand and to encourage customers to feel more comfortable. Several go a step further and profess that they want patrons to linger for awhile, perhaps while sipping a high-margin beverage (ca-ching!) or watching a new entertainment network for which they’re compensated.

Observes say it’s part of an overall effort to capture customers from a higher demographic, as once-exalted CFOs might’ve put it.

Cynics are more pointed: The chains want to draw people who have a job and can afford to spend a little more. No surprisingly, those targets prefer nicer appointments than retina-singing fluorescents, industrial flooring, and garish-colored seats that might’ve been designed by the folks who gave us water boarding.

A warmer, comfier setting might not only be worth a few more cents per transaction, but might prompt them to linger longer and keep buying beverages or snacks.

So let us pay homage to that nameless hero behind a major trend remaking the quick-service sector, cape-wearing designer. He or she is literally changing the face—and possibly the fortunes—of the grab-and-go world.

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