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How Is Fast Food Marketing Done? Uncover Best Kept Secrets

6 Min Read

It is widely accepted that it was the ancient Egyptians who started what we call advertising today. Posters and campaign promises were the first forms they dabbled in, sometimes carving them on metal. Modern advertising started in Britain in the 15th century, when a prayer book went on sale. But it was really the United States, with its firm capitalist ethos, that made advertising its very own. Fittingly, American brands dominate the world to this day, their associations and meanings serving to propagate a monoculture that is much derided. But no one can contest that the brand as a concept is an American idea, and that the world today has been shaped in ways known and unknown by it.

In the late 1980s and early 1990s, with the breakup of Soviet Russia, the opening up of China, and the liberalization of India, the major chunk of the world population opened itself up to consumerism, and therefore advertising. The brand became global.

As more and more businesses came up, marketing became ubiquitous; hence tougher. It is this world that we live in now, where we are bombarded by ads and billboards, newsletters and brochures. Standing out is now tougher, and marketers and admen have to do more, think smarter, and use every advantage they have and can create.

It is these stories that we will be writing about in our brand new series for The Marketer’s Last Mile: The Best Kept Secrets in Marketing. In this multi-part series, we will be focussing on specific industries and their most guarded marketing strategies. There will be behavioural economics, there will be psychology, and there will be a whole lot of learning and fun.

We hope you enjoy it.

For the first edition, we have for you a particularly interesting industry – fast food.

Read on.

Fast Food Marketing

Though fast food by itself is not an American export (Asians had noodles, the Ottomans had long-lasting bread and fermented milk, the Nordic countries had rather foul-smelling meat), the term certainly was. No one else called it fast food before that. Added to the Merriam Webster dictionary in 1951, fast food became a global industry that exported American style food (and culture).

The company that pioneered this is, of course, McDonald’s. Founded in 1940, and reimagined as a revolutionary franchise-style business in 1948, McDonald’s used production line principles and great marketing to grow itself to global domination.

But all this is well-known. What is not, is, however, the tactics it uses to lure in customers to eat at its ubiquitous restaurants. Though most of its competitors also use these strategies, almost all were pioneered by the folks at McD, as the outlets are popularly known.

By the early 2000s, McDonald’s was threatened across the world by fast-food businesses that had used their own strategies to replicate growth and profits. They were threatened by Yum Brands’ KFC and Pizza Hut, Dominos, and Papa John’s, as well as by the worldwide shift towards standalone restaurants and local cuisine.

It is at this time that their marketing strategies started becoming more and more innovative – this was the fast food rush to bridge the last mile between them and the customer.

Here are three of the more interesting ones:

Billboard placements

The good old billboard or the advertising hoarding remains one of the fast-food industry’s mainstays to reach their customers. Since they need to get customers into their restaurants first, one of their important metrics is ‘footfalls’, which means the number of people who walk into the restaurants in a given amount of time. One way to do this is to use billboards or signages. And McDonald’s uses them super-smartly.

When you are driving on a highway, there is a reason you can see these super-size hoardings with the bright Golden Arches from a long distance off. McDonald’s wants you to start thinking about their food from a long way away, so you’ll stop at the restaurant when it comes closer. The signages bear words that kick off an associated response in your brain – like Subway’s ‘Eat Fresh’ makes you think about lettuce and fresh ingredients. But even more smartly, McDonald’s signages appear repeatedly before a restaurant actually arrives. Repeated stimuli to your brain make you want to eat even if you are not hungry: they are basically inducing your brain to signal hunger. In fact, on highways with bigger McDonald’s outlets, the signages appear almost every mile near approach. Children are most susceptible to this kind of inducement, and therefore families usually do stop for an ice cream soda, at least, making it more likely that they will buy more.

Best kept secrets in Marketing

Aroma marketing

This is one of fast food’s open secrets: making prospective customers smell delicious food therefore giving their brain time to create an incentive to walk in. Most fast food restaurants, including McDonald’s make sure that aromas from their kitchen – which are sometimes strategically placed for exactly this – pervade the surrounding approaches and lure customers in. The smell of cooking has for ages been a stimuli for the brain to signal hunger, and people who are just walking by usually walk in to to get something to eat.

At times, some fast food places go a little further. They make sure that even their advertisements – leaflets or brochures – carry a whiff of something delicious, so the brain associates the brand name with something good to eat. This means that when you are actually passing the restaurant, your brain signals the association, and you take a decision to walk in. And when you walk in, you buy.

(Fun fact: There are consultancy companies that help fast food businesses do this. Foremost among them, and you should look them up – ScentAir.)

Colour coding

Think of any fast food franchise that you grabbed something to eat from recently. Now, think of their logo; think of a couple more. What do they have in common? Do you see any other colour apart from red, orange, yellow, and blue?


These colours have been proven in studies to stimulate hunger and attract attention, thereby making passers-by stop and think about having a bite. Also, the colour red, which is associated with immediacy and importance by virtue of its association with red traffic lights (which was itself a function of its properties of visibility and brightness) tends to make us pay attention, giving the brain enough time to make a decision if you should go grab a burger.

So the next time you pass by your neighborhood fast food joint, have a look around, observe the signages, and see if you smell the fries.

These are the fast food marketers’ best kept secrets, their way to make you walk the last mile.

Sairam Krishnan
Sairam Krishnan VWO Alumnus
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