Quick Serve Restaurant (QSR) marketers are in a pickle. They are criticized for serving unhealthy meals – but the "good-for-you" menu items they offer are not big sellers.
Heavy category users, fast food's most important customers, say they want to live and eat healthy. From what I see, though, their statements and actions contradict. Most often, the items they vote for with their dollars are high in calories, fat and salt.
Roughly three in ten US adults are heavy QSR category users (meaning they've been to a fast food restaurant 12 or more times in the past 30 days), according to our research.
The number of people who sweat the healthy details when buying food has more than doubled in the past 10 years, and heavy QSR users have been part of the movement. Adults 18+ who check ingredients and nutritional information increased from 25% to 58% between 2003 and 2013. Among heavy QSR consumers, the proportion jumped from 25% (2003) to 54% (2013).
Typical adults and heavy QSR users also express similar sentiments toward food and health. They are just as likely to evaluate the nutrition of menu items at restaurants (all adults, 46%; heavy users, 44%), and more than three-quarters of both groups believe they eat right.
But I see the food choices of heavy QSR users having troubling consequences.
Heavy users are 23% more likely than typical adults to be or have been obese, a leading contributor to diabetes and other chronic disease. (About 8% of all adults have diabetes, according to the Centers for Disease Control.) The economic cost of the disease in the U.S. is $245 billion a year, and heavy QSR users are 8% more likely than all adults to be diabetic.
And people make the connection between QSR food and poor health. Our data show that 68% of both heavy users and typical adults agree that fast food is junk food.
To bridge the gap between desire and action – between good intentions and bad food decisions – represents a challenge for QSR marketers. To add authenticity and believability to their efforts, QSRs need to extend their commitment beyond offering salads and apples.
Through efforts like the CDC's National Diabetes Prevention Program, health care leaders are taking action against diet-related disease. QSRs can help.
I see an opportunity for QSRs to support local health organizations by sponsoring programs like wellness fairs and health screenings. Health care providers initially might not want to be associated with fast food brands. But if approached with a plan that clearly supports healthy lifestyles, that may change.
QSRs can also speak to consumer interest in local foods. More than six in ten heavy users say they try to buy food that's grown or produced locally. QSRs can offer items with local ingredients – with farms credited and the distance from "farm to table" noted. Although this might complicate supply chains and value pricing, the practice will boost brand equity if properly promoted.
QSR marketing and social media are a perfect combo
So how can QSR marketers help get the healthy word out? According to our data, heavy QSR patrons are at least 20% more likely than typical adults to say social media is very important to them for getting discounts, learning about products, and other tasks.
QSRs can easily integrate health and nutrition in social media plans:
1. Launch "healthy meal-deals" based on customer feedback from Twitter hashtag campaigns. Offer coupons or free items as incentives for participation.
2. Create a game that awards points when players order healthy items. An app can track points, redeemable for coupons or player-only offers.
The message is clear: QSR marketers have tried simply offering health items, with little success. By taking their efforts a step further, and using their powerful voices to raise awareness about the importance of healthy eating, they can find a variety of ways to make a difference – for their customers and their brands.