The Future of Fast Food is Personalization

Before the Golden Arches, the McDonald’s logo was a chef hat on top of a hamburger called Speedee.

Speedee symbolized the then-pioneering approach McDonald’s had to prepare food. Lean, quick, and efficient, the chain introduced the assembly line to the restaurant, helping create the concept of “fast food”.

Founder Richard McDonald later said the concept worked because if you “ask a guy […] what he wants on his burgers” then he would have to “go back to the car to ask [his] wife”.

But now, McDonald’s is getting more interested in understanding exactly what its customers want.

This year, the company acquired AI specialists Dynamic Yield in a move that represents the industry’s deepening integration with technology, and the renewed importance of individual preferences, identified through data.

Technology is coming to the fore again

Fast food, a disruptive industry when it first emerged, is being disrupted.

Across fast food and QSRs (Quick Service Restaurants), technology of various kinds is challenging previous orthodoxies, and new experiments are taking place.

Deals with third-party providers are bringing deliveries to more consumers. Meat-free burgers have joined the menus at Burger King and Carl’s Jr. And in some new flagship stores, table service is making a comeback.

All of this led us to run a bespoke study in the UK and U.S. into what consumers expect from the future of fast food.

We wanted to know – with so many initiatives underway – which resonated the most with their audience.

We’ve separated this into two parts – one focused on the food, and the other on the experience (or convenience) of ordering from brick-and-mortar restaurants.

From supersized to customized

On the food front, customization of orders was the biggest wish consumers had.

Personalization and customization are sometimes used interchangeably when talking about the machine learning technology that companies like Dynamic Yield use. But this appetite for customization shows consumers want to have freedom to change orders on their own terms.

Consumers crave fast food flexiblity

This was followed by a desire for healthier menu items.

A lack of healthy options puts some barriers on consumers eating fast food; 12% who hadn’t eaten fast food in the past month didn’t do so because the options weren’t healthy enough, though a general wish not to spend the money (41%) was the biggest reason not to visit a fast food restaurant.

Dietary trends are secondary to regional cuisine

With meat-free diets making waves this year, fast food has had to respond.

Burger King’s announcement of the Impossible Whopper, a version of their flagship burger made out of plant protein, grabbed headlines when it launched in April.

But one of our survey’s most intriguing findings was that accommodating dietary trends – whether in adding meat-free or keto dishes, or using organic ingredients – wasn’t craved as much as food options specific to an area’s local cuisine.

28% of internet users across both markets wanted more food options reflective of local cuisine or ingredients.

In other words, no dietary preference is as popular as the wish for more local character in the food.

Consumers want unique experiences

As with consumers wanting more customization in their orders, the results show consumer appetite for more unique experiences than fast food may have previously provided.

It may come from a data-driven approach to preparing food, or from switching up menu options and ingredients based on where a restaurant is located.

But in either case, a good proportion of fast food consumers are wanting something more unique from their meal.

Consumers value fast food basics

You might assume that this was driven by more demanding, experience-minded younger consumers, but this appetite for customization and regionalization actually peaked among 35-44s.

Technology needs to drive customer service

When we look at what’s desired from the restaurants themselves, consumers say they want better customer service more than anything else.

Across the QSR sector, brands are balancing experience against convenience. Starbucks, for example, is investing in its convenience-friendly mobile app while building out more of its boutique Roastery spaces.

For fast food specifically, investment in customer service has to be weighed against another of our findings;

57% of fast food eaters tend to take their order elsewhere to eat.

So this may be a case where consumer sentiment doesn’t always translate into action at a restaurant counter. Consumers may say they want better customer service, but perhaps tend to pick the convenient option more in practice.

But it does show that, while investments into fast food technology can power quicker and more customized orders, consumers still value good service when ordering. Technology has to enable good customer service, not remove it.

Customer service is wanted more in the U.S. than in the UK, however, another significant difference between the two markets was that dietary trends made more of an impact stateside, with consumers in the U.S. more likely to want options tailored to specific diets.

Technology shouldn’t replace old values

The press release announcing McDonald’s acquisition of Dynamic Yield talked up its capabilities in using data from orders and context (like weather and time of day).

In our survey, this type of feature was requested less than better customer service, closer restaurants, or quicker delivery.

Any application of personalization will need to drive these core consumer desires first and foremost, and not be used as an end in itself.

Fast food is changing. The industry grew through production methods that could be replicated across hundreds and thousands of restaurants, creating the same product each time. But creating the same product each time now holds less appeal.

Consumers are used to experiencing personalization at scale – it’s an ingrained part of their online lives, whether they’re shopping or watching videos.

Our core data tells the same story. We’re seeing year-on-year increases in the percentage of internet users wanting brands to give them personalized recommendations for purchases.

And in this particular survey, we found consumers want more flexibility and individuated experiences from fast food companies.

2019 looks set to be a landmark year for fast food, with various key industry players experimenting with personalization.  

But in adopting new technology, fast food brands have to be aware that the basics of easy access to food, quick delivery, and good service remain paramount, and any new technologies and initiatives need to serve these wishes first and foremost.