It’s true that many consumers care deeply that the companies they do business with are socially responsible. Some very successful fast-casual concepts illustrate that community efforts can benefit the company at the same time they benefit others.
Technomic’s Consumer Restaurant Brand Metrics, an ongoing study that asks consumers about more than 60 specific restaurant attributes or touchpoints, finds that 59 percent of consumers say it’s important that fast-casual brands are socially responsible, and 53 percent say it’s important that the brands give back to the community. These importance rankings are far lower than the most important attributes, such as the quality of the food (94 percent) and order accuracy (93 percent). But social responsibility can be a key selling point for a concept, helping to build the trust and, thus, loyalty of its customers.
Take Panera Bread, for example. Its new ad campaign encourages patrons to “Live Consciously. Eat Deliciously.” The campaign emphasizes the company’s dedication to serving good food made with quality ingredients as well as its commitment to social responsibility. Through the Panera Cares foundation, the chain operates five restaurants in which guests can pay what they want. The assumption is that customers who can pay a little more round up so that those who wouldn’t ordinarily be able to afford it can have a nutritious meal at Panera. CEO Ron Shaich has been telling the story to prominent media outlets, spreading the word about chronic hunger and gaining plenty of publicity for the brand.
Another example is Chipotle, which is well known for its use of chicken, pork and beef that has been raised naturally and treated humanely. Its “food with integrity” mantra:
“It means serving the very best sustainably raised food possible with an eye to great taste, great nutrition and great value. It means that we support and sustain family farmers who respect the land and the animals in their care. It means that whenever possible we use meat from animals raised without the use of antibiotics or added hormones. And it means that we source organic and local produce when practical. And that we use dairy from cows raised without the use of synthetic hormones.”
You might argue that these are successful concepts backed by wealthy financiers, and that every fast-casual concept can’t afford to prioritize goodwill over food and labor costs. That may be so. But I would argue that today’s consumer has so many choices that you need to build relationships with them to maintain their business. Just as with personal relationships, that takes caring about the same things and building a foundation of trust. Social consciousness is a powerful way to do that.