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When Being Unpredictable Is Your Best Business Strategy

Taco Bell has the waffle taco, Starbucks has a new diner, and TGI Fridays is going upscale. The unconventional offerings show how effective it can be to diverge from what your company is known for.

How do older restaurants stay relevant in the age of innovation? Consumers are finding out, as fast food stalwarts like Taco Bell go after the breakfast market, Starbucks opens a diner, and TGI Fridays revamps its menu and interior decor for older millennials who have fond memories of the chain from their high school days. 

Such moves might lead you to question whether to take a similar left turn with your business. If you're known for doing one thing well, should you complicate matters--and risk alienating customers--by trying something out of the ordinary? Consumer psychologist and Decoding the New Consumer Mind author Kit Yarrow says it is indeed worthwhile, especially because of consumers' rapid adoption of technology and consequent shortening attention spans.

"We want more change and we have more faith in things that are new and different," she tells Inc. Restaurants and other companies "have to show that they're trying new things in order to be credible to today's consumers, who really look at newness and innovation as hallmarks of a great business." 

That's not to say your business should abandon what made it great, but being less predictable can be an asset, if it's done right. Here are a few restaurant case studies to learn from: 

Taco Bell 

What it did: Unveiled its new breakfast menu on March 27, taking the fast food chain from drunk o'clock nightspot to morning pit stop for busy professionals.  

Why it works: Who doesn't want to try a waffle taco? Cashing in on the freaky food trend has kept #waffletaco trending on Twitter for months now, and the McDonald's rivalry didn't hurt either. "I don't know if the buzz is going to be permanent or not, but this is a perfect example of consumers wanting to be delighted by something new," Yarrow says. 

Starbucks 

The strategy: The ubiquitous coffeehouse will open a restaurant this summer in Los Angeles called La Boulange, after the bakery chain Starbucks acquired in 2012. Unlike its competitors, which mainly close at 7 p.m., La Boulange will stay open until 10 p.m.

Why it will work: "I think all consumers are willing to give Starbucks permission to try new things," says Yarrow, who's found that teenagers prefer the coffeeshop to the mall. "They love that it's a place that's theirs to be with their friends. They're going to grow up and acquire more money, so to expand the capability for that target really makes sense."  

TGI Friday's 

What it did: Got a new logo, sleeker decor, and a Portlandia-approved menu that includes healthier options than loaded potato skins. 

Why it works: TGI Friday's was never upscale, but the restaurant wins points for trying to show off its value. "They can't make the menu prices higher" because they're a casual chain, Yarrow says, "but bringing in freshness and a change" is a good idea. 

Mario Batali: Don't Turn Your Back on Tradition

Modernize all you want, but reinventing the wheel is pointless, says Mario Batali.

More:
Last updated: Jun 5, 2014

JILL KRASNY | Staff Writer

Jill Krasny is a staff writer for Inc. magazine, where she covers the intersection of entertainment and startups. Prior to Inc., she was a writer for MTV and Esquire and an editor at TheStreet. She is a graduate of the University of Southern California with a degree in communication. She lives in New York City.




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