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Our Evolving (Love / Hate) Relationship with Brands

There are pros and cons to the use of national restaurant brands on college campuses. Weighing both is key to developing a branding strategy.

Author's Note:  The article you are about to read does not provide practical information that you can immediately apply to your operations.  It is instead the author’s survey of various insights expressed (sometimes in the form of rants) by college operators and customers on their feelings about brands. Our goal is to inform the ongoing and robust debate as to whether the use of branded concepts in campus dining programs is constructive or not.

Our firm surveys collegiate dining programs and their customers regularly, and based on this research, I can confidently say that the vast majority of campuses offer nationally recognized brands in one form or another.  So if “everyone” is doing it, why bother debating their use?  Well, let’s first look at the most prevalent pro and con arguments we’re hearing on campuses these days and come back to that question …

Why we Love Brands

National brands can increase customer satisfaction. Operators tell us this all the time and our own surveys indicate that the most successful brands tend to generate higher satisfaction scores than comparable unbranded or self-branded concepts.

National brands can build traffic and revenue.  A good brand can drive traffic to an underutilized building and I have seen this happen on many occasions.  Thus, branding can be a realistic strategy for addressing location-specific traffic and revenue shortalls. The addition of a popular brand has can help convert an underutilized lounge or lobby into a hot new campus gathering and hangout place.  It is also common to see check averages go up when a new, stronger brand replaces an unbranded or weaker brand concept.

Corporate licensing and franchise programs offer ease of implementation and systems to support consistent execution over time.  This can be a big gain for residentially-oriented dining programs that are seeking to grow their retail business but don’t have the same bench strength in this area.

The use of bands frees up operators to focus on what they can do best. How many operator-developed concepts can really effectively match or beat the market presence, brand equity, systems and perceived value of the best of the leading brands?  It can be done, but it takes a significant commitment of time, resources and talent to pull it off. Often those time and talent resources are better applied to managing the business in other ways.

Brands tend to keep people on campus and can lead to higher enrollment in voluntary meal plans.  Commuter students at most universities can pick from a number of their favorite brands on their way to or very close to campus, so bringing a few of the best onto campus can increase their incentive to enroll in your meal plan and eat more of their meals there.

Why we Hate Brands

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Brands tend to promote the image, message and values of the brand, rather than reflecting the unique culture and character of the institution.  This is probably the concern I hear voiced most frequently by key administrators, students and faculty members relative to brands.  It comes in two general forms:

-  The use of brands makes us look more like the Mall of America and dilutes the message of what is special about our campus; or,

-  When brand partners make national news over their values or practices, the entire campus community assumes we are endorsing these positions.  We can’t afford to let ourselves be defined in this way.

Limited menus and agreement terms restrict operators’ ability to respond to changing needs. Part of the success formula for a strong brand is to focus on offering a few items that it is best known for in an efficient, consistent manner.   This can lead to “brand fatigue,” especially on smaller campuses where students may feel their choices are limited. Boredom with a brand through overexposure can be aggravated by extended, multi-year commitments operators must typically make to bring a brand on campus. When flexibility suffers, programs can, too.

The financial equation required by brand franchises can be challenging in a campus setting.  Already thin margins are gobbled up by payments back to the brand (license fees, royalties, etc.), and pricing must be the same as equivalent locations off campus or students will revolt.  In many situations, especially where campus dining staff are paid a living wage and excellent institutional benefits, the cost of offering a brand on campus can be more than it’s worth.  Unfortunately, customers don’t want or need to know about these realities. They perceive a dining program’s reluctance to offer brands as protectionism or restraint of free trade.

Brands are perceived as promoting unhealthy eating habits. Several brands have made headway in battling this perception. At the same time, our fascination with national food brands started with fast food chains focused on offering high-fat foods—and many of these continue to be the most prominent names in the world of restaurant brands.

Brands are perceived as not sustainable. As more and more campuses commit to sustainable practices, including targets for the percentage of foods that will be purchased from “local” sources, national brands are perceived as working against these goals as their procurement programs are often tied to national contracts.

“It’s all hype – our own (name your food) consistently beats the ‘leading’ brands in blind taste tests.”  College operators often argue that the public is being hoodwinked in to believing they are getting a superior product when they buy from a brand, but that actual testing belies this perception.

Where do you stand on brands?

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Whether the students on your campus howl about the evils of corporate brands, or flock in herds to their offerings, both behaviors clearly demonstrate the power and influence that brands have with customers. 

Research has shown they can drive traffic (good for community and revenues), but can also work against diversity of choices and limit an operator’s ability to respond to rapidly changing trends in the marketplace.

Also, don’t ignore the fact that this debate goes well beyond food. How many schools embrace Apple departments in their bookstores? How about this question: “are you a Coke or a Pepsi campus?”  Corporations acknowledge their interest in gaining student brand loyalty early on, believing it can make them customers for life.  

Finally, through the power of social networking (especially via another influential brand—Facebook), likes and dislikes can have a ripple effect far outside the confines of campus.  In fact, peer-to-peer marketing of brands has proven to be very effective and is becoming pervasive on college campuses.

So the debate on brands is alive and well. And back to the question we asked in the beginning, do you think national restaurant brands are a key strategy or a necessary evil that needs to be controlled on your campus? We’d like your opinion.

You can publicly comment on this topic in the comment section below this article and give us your thinking relative to the most important role restaurant brands play on your campus by clicking here and taking this very short poll [5].

Rob White, FCSI, is President of Envision Strategies, a consultancy specializing in strategic planning and operations consulting for food service, hospitality and retail enterprises.