Monday, November 29, 2010

What Drives Us to the Drive-Thru?

For obvious reasons, food has been on my mind this week. It's hard not to be excited because, like a lot of Americans, Thanksgiving is one of the rare times when I enjoy a meal in the most traditional sense of the word. These days it seems that the main ingredient come meal time is a paper bag.

Not surprisingly, fast-food marketers are considered by many to be the ringleaders causing this phenomenon and consequently responsible for fattening the American belly. One has to look no further than California to see that. San Francisco recently took a cue from the neighboring Santa Clara County Board of Supervisors and banned the practice of including free toys from with food deemed not nutritious, such as certain types of Happy Meals. Certainly, it would be disingenuous to insist that the growing obesity rate, which now rests at 34 percent for adults and 17 percent for kids, and the steady rise in the marketing bill of fast-food restaurants during that time is purely accidental.

However, it's unlikely that additional government regulation and attempts to make marketing more difficult will tackle this juggernaut . Even under intense scrutiny from many government officials and industry watchdogs, a recent study by the Yale University Rudd Center for Food Policy & Obesity determined that fast-food marketers actually are increasing their marketing effort to more children.

Analyzing the 12 biggest fast food marketers, the researchers determined that the marketing efforts are paying off, too, as 40 percent of parents participating said their children asked to get fast food once a week, and 15 percent of parents with preschoolers were asked daily. However, they ultimately don't make the purchase decisions, so it's telling that 84 percent of parents said they had visited a fast-food restaurant in the past week with their children (between ages 2 and 11).

The reason parents eventually break down is understandable. As an industry, fast food is positioned as convenient, accessible, and low cost, which are pillars to the American way of life. It also holds true for parents, who also grown up on golden arches.

In my opinion, that's much too powerful a force for government to take down. I believe the only hope for change is through competition. The category will continue to diverge and the brands that will be successful are ones that position themselves differently within the category. Over time, consumer behavior will change. This is already happening in the drink category, with soft drinks lose share to different waters, tea's and juices.

All we need now is the marketers to go and do it.

This post also appeared on Talent Zoo's Beneath the Brand.

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