Branding Genius: The Secrets Behind In-N-Out Burger’s Outsized Reputation

In our recent examination of Cohn & Wolfe’s Most Authentic Brands in the U.S., one major brand category felt conspicuously absent: fast food. This may be a result of our food culture’s recent growing focus on organic, local ingredients and seasonal menus, which leaves major chains hurting when it comes to consumer perceptions of authenticity. Or, it could be that fast food branding is in a bit of a slump. In an industry dominated by long-standing titans of convenience like McDonald’s and Taco Bell, there’s not a lot of incentive for innovation.

However, there is one fast food chain that looms large despite its relatively small footprint. In-N-Out Burger, which only has locations in California and parts of the Southwest, has nonetheless achieved an almost mythic quality among fast food enthusiasts. In fact, Nation’s Restaurant News recently ranked In-N-Out the highest in customer loyalty of any fast food chain nationwide, with 62% of respondents “saying their last visit… was motivated by the brand and not convenience.”

How does In-N-Out so successfully stand out from the crowd?

Small Footprint, Big Impact

One major reason may be its exclusivity. In an article for Blender Media, marketing and branding analyst Marika Hirsch writes that “It can seem a bit of a contradiction, but representing less in a marketing strategy can actually garner more attention.” In-N-Out Burger’s limited geographic availability is consistent with the brand’s origin story, both creating demand and reinforcing what consumers love about it – the “California vibe.”

Founded in 1948, In-N-Out is “widely believed to be the first drive-thru burger shop in the U.S.” “Since this iconic moment,” Hirsch writes, “In-N-Out’s marketing efforts have revolved around the culture and environment surrounding the burger chain’s birth.” That would be the culture of southern California, where laid-back surfers lounge on beaches and palm trees abound. The interior of any In-N-Out Burger location pays homage to its origins through retro, LA-style neon signage. The exterior, wherever possible, includes a pair of live palm trees (echoed on the drink cups), which the chain first started planting at each location in 1972.

The authentic California vibe is as much a part of the In-N-Out experience as the food. And the limited locations in only 5 U.S. states keeps the brand tethered to its SoCal origins. The fact that an In-N-Out Burger is hard to get only adds to the appeal. I know many enthusiasts who make the chain their first stop whenever they travel to a location where it is available.

The brand occasionally teases consumers in other parts of the country with its infamous Pop-Up Shops, such as one in Toronto where “hundreds of people arrived 5-7 hours early to wait in line before the 11 am opening.” Why? “An eager man told The Toronto Star, ‘When you go to one of their locations, you really just get that California vibe.’”

The Not-So-Secret Secret Menu

One highly impactful outgrowth of the chain’s intentional insider appeal is the (no longer very secret) Secret Menu. Once nearly an urban legend, these combinations of phrases that regular customers developed to customize their orders became so popular and intriguing that the company eventually publicly confirmed their existence and published a guide for newcomers. Now, the brand-copyrighted phrase “Animal Style” is a calling card for In-N-Out’s diehard fans. And despite the recent publicity, it is still fascinating to see employee’s reactions when you place a secret menu order.

In addition to the “Secret Menu,” In-N-Out is one of the few remaining fast food chains with a “Secret Sauce.” Imitation recipes are everywhere online, but to get the real thing consumers still have to visit an In-N-Out Burger location. These two elements add heft to the insider appeal that the brand has so carefully cultivated and which has so powerfully contributed to their success.

Commitment to Quality

But let’s not forget the actual food! Another pillar of In-N-Out Burger’s brand is their commitment to handmade, never-frozen burgers. In fact, one of the reasons for their limited locations, as AdWeek explains, is that the brand “won’t build a restaurant further than a refrigerated semi truck can drive in one day from one of its three butcheries.” In-N-Out’s culinary ethos also includes “no freezers, heat lamps or microwaves,” and “the company butchers its own beef, bakes its own buns and delivers produce from the farm.”

It’s rare for a fast food restaurant to prioritize quality over quantity, but this approach has paid off mightily for In-N-Out Burger, creating legions of dedicated fans. The menu sticks to the basics (another instance where less is more), but the burgers, fries, and milkshakes the chain is known for have earned their legendary status. So has the brand. By limiting supply to create demand, instilling an insider appeal, and providing a consistently high-quality menu, In-N-Out Burger has cultivated America’s most loyal fast food customers.

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