How to Create the Next Fast Food Menu Frenzy

For every great new menu item, there are dozens more that don’t wow diners. And with restaurants facing rising labor and food costs, getting customers through the door and drive-thru is more important than ever.

Popeyes struck gold after spending two years in research and development for its popular chicken sandwich, which sold out weeks after its launch in 2019 and has continued to drive growth for the past three years. How can the success of the chain’s innovation be replicated by other fast services?

Idea testing is a process that helps brands quickly get informed feedback on new food and beverage options. With brands eager to grab market share, testing grounded in behavioral science is a useful resource for product developers and marketers.

Pressure to create objects worthy of envy

Perfecting a new product usually involves extensive research, tasting, tweaking, and marketing. If an item is a hit, brands should aim to repeat the buzz and sales the next time around. In many cases, a winning product can lead to additional iterations, like how Burger King followed up its Chicken Fries versions with Fiery and Crispy Pretzel.

Competitors also feel the heat when a rival’s innovation works well. After the Popeyes sandwich, other big brands joined the “chicken sandwich war” and introduced their own versions.

Also, with the wide reach of social media, brands are trying new things to increase their chances of going viral. Earlier this year, Jollibee UK’s TikTok account featured fries topped with soft serve ice cream and garnered 3.3 million views across two videos. Meanwhile, the hashtag #fastfood totals 8 billion views on the platform.

But capturing attention isn’t just luck. It requires a great idea that makes people’s mouths water. To create an “it” menu item, quick service restaurants cannot have product development teams and marketers working in silos. They need to understand how the wider market will react to new foods and beverages. Ideally, they will be able to gather this information and launch a new innovation before the competition even thinks about it.

Leverage idea testing to predict profit potential

A focus group or a limited, localized release can provide valuable insight into whether people like the taste of a new menu innovation. Some brands also use franchisee committees to gain insight into the impact of new menu items on teams and gain internal support for upcoming launches.

Going one step further, testing ideas on a larger scale can accurately reveal the profit potential of ideas. Brands should look for tests rooted in the “wisdom of the crowd” methodology. Indeed, crowds predict success better than smaller, niche groups of people, including loyal customers or internal teams with deep knowledge of the brand and its competitors. The reason is that they have no vested interest in innovation.

So how does this type of test work? Ideally, a survey will reach about 500 people so that the results are representative of the whole population. Tests should determine whether respondents invest in the idea, not if they would make a purchase. A trading game that asks respondents if they would buy or sell stocks in the idea and records their decision-making speed determines the predicted acceptance.

Because the tests don’t ask if respondents would buy the item, they provide accuracy even if the people in the sample are not the target demographic. Thus, there is no need to worry about vegetarians or vegans in a sample negatively impacting test results for a beef burger. They just wonder if they think others will like it and make it a success.

Idea tests that ask participants how the prototype makes them feel they are tapping into behavioral science. Sentiments are a predictor of profit potential because the happier an idea makes someone, the more likely they are to select it when buying. In addition to revealing respondents’ emotions, tests can solicit advice on how to improve the product, which can involve everything from included ingredients to packaging to price. So even before people taste an innovation, brands can discover the public’s instincts about one or more ideas.

Fast service competition intensifies

Today’s fast food brands must continually find ways to attract new customers and retain their fans. In addition to friendly and prompt service, cleanliness and affordability, restaurants must have an exciting menu filled with tasty items. This is where innovation comes in.

Whether launching a new mainstay or a limited release, it’s best to understand a product’s profit potential before it’s on every menu and at the center of a marketing plan. Data from idea testing based on the “wisdom of the crowd” can justify investment in the next phase of the development process. In addition to helping product development teams, idea testing helps marketers create the next fast food frenzy and drive brand growth.

Lisa Shield is Senior Vice President of Growth and Partnerships for System1, world leader marketing decision support platform that helps predict and improve the business impact of ads and innovation. Contact her at [email protected] and access System1’s Test Your Idea platform at

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