Being Immersed: A Preface
Carl’s Jr. has seen a decline in brand love and sales for a while now. We know this. But why?
The research says that people don’t have a firm understanding of why they should eat with us. There’s no simple answer to what sets us apart or makes the food and brand experience special. For a burger brand once beloved by so many, that’s shocking to hear.
So we took a trip up and down sunny Southern California to get to the root of it all, working to unearth the emotional benefits of eating at Carl’s Jr. with the goal of creating something memorable, unique and most of all, smart, as we move into our new brand campaign development.
We spoke to and hung out with those who know this brand the best: the people who run the restaurants, prepare the food and serve the customers — and the customers themselves. Our time together revealed many opportunities and a handful of consistent truths that were echoed across everyone we met.
Now, it’s on all of us to take heed of what’s happening on the ground and provide an answer to the ultimate question: how do we convince more folks to make that left turn and experience the Carl’s Jr. that we know and love?
Come along with us, as we journey inward from the deserts, beaches, and streets of SoCal, all the way into the delicious feeling of eating at Carl’s Jr.
1. The Culture
California is California. Or is it? For $12, you can take in a monster truck rally with a corn dog bigger than your arm—a far cry from what many might expect.
Hitting up L.A., Orange County, the Coachella Valley and the San Diego area, we kept breaking the stereotypes we had of Southern California as we navigated some of the most eclectic communities in America.
Living in these markets for the limited time we had shed light on what our customers experience en route to their local Carl’s Jr. Alternating art events and Spanish-only thrift stores in Downtown Los Angeles; monster trucks and corn dogs in Orange County; spas and sun-soaked desert hills in the Coachella Valley; riding electric scooters all around the city of San Diego and and the Mexican border in greater San Diego.
2. The Restaurant
We visited 14 restaurants within four different markets to get a sense of how the holistic experience differed from exterior to interior. What does it feel like to go to Carl’s Jr. and how does the experience hold up across locations?
“Give people comfortability, consistency, and excitement, and they will keep coming back” — Tamela, District Manager, San Diego
What talked to just about everyone we could find about the magic of Carl’s Jr. yesterday and today, from the son of the man himself to the next kid trying to catch a cheap bite.
- Bob, retired, Orange County, older white man
- Jose, shift worker/technician, Coachella Valley, older Millennial male
- Claudia, Disneyland employee, Orange County, Millennial female
- Cynthia, mom, Anaheim, Millennial white woman married with kids
- Crystal + Paul, Amazon delivery employees, Coachella Valley, older Millennial white couple
- William + Chimerea + toddler, employment unknown, Arizona, black Millennial family with toddler
- Omar, car salesman, San Diego, Millennial hispanic man
- Bryan + Alex + Joshua, college students, Orange County, all young Hispanic Millennial males
- Jacob + Justin + Karla, high-school grads, Orange County, all young white/Hispanic Millennials
- Carl Karcher (son), Franchisee, Coachella Valley, older white man
- Kelly Karcher (grand-daughter), Franchisee, Coachella Valley, white Millennial woman
- Mike, Franchisee, San Diego, middle-aged white man
DISTRICT + GENERAL MANAGERS
- Tamela, District Manager, San Diego, middle-aged white woman
- Alex, General Manager, Orange County, Hispanic Millennial man
- Laura, Operator, Los Angeles, middle-aged Hispanic woman
- Cheryl, Operator, Orange County, middle-aged white woman
For nearly every guest, what they experienced in-restaurant was the proverbial “zero moment of truth” — when they created their first (and maybe last) impression of what it’s like to eat there. This moment happened long before they’d taken their first bite.
When a restaurant is designed well and has incredible service, it can create brand loyalty on the spot. It’s what customers will come to expect with every visit, every time.
“I’m coming back because of you” — Actual guest in response to the incredible service of Alex, GM at store #450
Many of our guests, though, are experiencing inconsistency. Restaurants ranged from clean and inviting to outdates and semi-unkept in a matter of miles, particularly in urban locations. POP was different at nearly every location we visited, promoting too many products and failing to stay up-to-date with the most current signage. Our most iconic symbol, Happy Star, is overshadowed by a big Coca-Cola logo floating above the beverage bar, the biggest piece of branding that we saw in most stores. Dining areas and bathrooms weren’t clean. Menu boards are often cluttered and confusing, and have inconsistent design.
Plus, our competition is everywhere. And they have more attractive stores with more cars pouring out of the parking lot just across the street from where we are. In-N-Out doesn’t necessarily make a better burger, but a simple facade and an even simpler menu can go a long way when you’re deciding which way to turn.
3. The Food
The moment when people decide what to eat was a little bit different in every restaurant, thanks to a wide variety of menu board and POP design. Franchisees have taken menu strategies into their own hands as they try to find ways to best appeal to their unique customer base. Regional activations are key, and they’re what many of our franchisees have felt we’ve lost: a connection to the local communities we serve.
“They’re stealing our money”
“I don’t know how I’m going to sell that”
“Why are we putting pictures of All-Star boxes on the POP when what we sell are big, juicy, delicious burgers?”
“I don’t think that’s gonna sell, but I know this will”
- Quotes from franchisees and managers we spoke to about menu choices
Going into every restaurant, we came in with two key questions for customers to better understand what they loved about the food and why they chose what they chose.
- Q1: What do you think that people who aren’t eating here at Carl’s Jr. need to know about the restaurant?
- Q2: Why did you decide to eat at Carl’s Jr. instead of the many other options you have?
The answers to those two questions helped us zero in on the very central tension within the brand’s food story: quality vs. novelty.
Quality: Why We Love Carl’s Jr.
Guests told us time and time again that the one thing people need to know about Carl’s Jr. is the quality of the food, starting and ending with overwhelmingly charbroiled classics like the Western Bacon Cheeseburger, the Famous Star and BBQ Chicken Sandwich.
Throughout the system, what we didn’t see being ordered by customers we spoke with were LTO menu items, a trend echoed by operators and managers. Memphis BBQ Thickburger? El Diablo? Jolly Rancher? Whether or not a restaurant was promoting these items, we almost never saw them being ordered. There’s no reason for our customers to go out on a limb and try these sensational sandwiches and shakes; they’re too busy enjoying what they love.
At a time when we need to focus on reestablishing our reputation in an all-new way, it’s imperative that we stay true to who we are. Even the term “Thickburger” was inherited from Hardee’s, and when we asked what the word means to our everyday customers, restaurant owners and employees echoed that people simply don’t care. “Charbroiled” was organically mentioned by a couple of the people that we interviewed, and in contrast to “Thickburger,” it seems to denote a more premium, quality product in the minds of those we met.
For a brand with such outspoken favorites that dominate orders, it leaves customers to wonder why the Carl’s Jr. menu is so crowded with sandwiches and other menu items that don’t seem to matter. The menu stands in stark contrast to the experience found just across the street at In-N-Out, where they’ve zeroed in on the most beloved menu items and eliminated the rest.
Novelty: Why We Choose Carl’s Jr. Over Everyone Else
We’ve got the secret sauce. We just don’t talk about it consistently enough in a way that matters. But 10,000 adjectives and listicles of food quality descriptors won’t set us apart. The simple taste and quality of our food will, so long as we convince people to stop and try Carl’s Jr. just once.
Those that love us do so because we have iconic flavors that haven’t changed and can’t be found anywhere else. The Western Bacon Cheeseburger. The superior-than-any-other-burgers-this-size Sliders. Even the Chicken Stars that just look cool to both kids and adults alike. It’s the novelty of the unique and ownable flavors that keep our doors open and people coming back.
The great thing is, there are no problems with the food. It’s delicious—and this is coming from upper-middle class advertisers who drink kombucha and eat cold, steel-cut oats in the morning. We just need a unified front that lets the people know we mean business.
4. The Emotional Experience
The most important thing that this trip taught us is that no matter what someone’s favorite menu item is or how well it’s prepared, what keeps them coming back is how eating at Carl’s Jr. makes them feel. Forget overused quality cues. Our food is great and it speaks for itself. What matters is that people see us as an blissful oasis in the middle of their day-to-day lives, and they aren’t afraid to say so, either.
Overwhelmingly and across every customer segment, Carl’s Jr. seems to win with their loyal fan base by creating opportunities for everyday indulgence.
Carl’s Jr. is, to many customers, the happiest choice they make all day. It meant indulging themselves in a better burger, fresher fries and juicier chicken tenders than they expect from others like McDonald’s. It’s a reward that can’t be received anywhere else.
“In this crazy world, the community is crying out for a place to be happy at” — Tamela, District Manager, San Diego
Carl Karcher, the son of the original Carl Karcher, was reminded of his favorite tagline throughout the brand’s history when we chatted with him. I’m Out Of This World. To this day, it’s a message that’s framed on the walls of every Carl’s Jr. location we went to, speaking to those who remember Carl’s commitment to unbelievable food and service with a smile. It’s all about taking a break from the crazy to indulge.
No one embodies the spirit of “Out Of this World” indulgence more than the District Manager of several San Diego restaurants, Tamela. She challenges her customers to challenge her, stating that she’ll “literally make anything you want to eat so long as we have it.” Her mission to is to make every single customer be able to “feel our smile through the drive-thru,” taking that moment of bliss when someone chooses Carl’s Jr. to new heights.
When we arrived at the Broadway location in Lemon Grove, Tamela was busy helping a customer enjoy her food. A woman in a wheelchair who had received Tamela’s number from earlier interactions had given her a call, letting her know that she was stuck waiting for a ride at CVS just across the parking lot and could really go for some Carl’s Jr. Beyond just going to pick this woman up, Tamela took it upon herself buy the lady her meal and spend time with her. She helped her customer to eat and didn’t hesitate to do everything in her power to make her feel right at home. That is what creating moments of happiness and indulgence is all about.
We came. We saw. We got conquered by a ton of great food and amazing people who make up the restaurants we represent. We have a duty to do right by them, making amazing work that we can all be proud of while also driving sales. It’s more than a TV spot. More than a few social posts. It’s a full effort on all fronts to reignite brand relevancy and interest. Fortunately, our food is great and our people are amazing.
Now, how do we get people to care? Stay tuned for more. 😉 🍔
More questions? Comments? More insight into the magic of eating at Carl’s Jr.? Hit us up @ firstname.lastname@example.org. 👍
Note: This research is for internal purposes only on behalf of CKE Restaurant Holdings, Inc.