Bigger, Stronger, Faster Food

Amplify founder Jonathan Emmins was invited to analyse the results of the annual Youth 100 survey, undertaken by Voxburner. He was given a category close to his heart and clogged arteries – fast food.

Fast Food. Fast Youth.

Fast food continues to spark debate. Seemingly as a nation we are on the road to obesity, with school kids the heaviest they have ever been, heart disease at an all time high, and the media’s backlash against fast food is reaching levels previously reserved for the alcohol and tobacco industry. In parallel and in contrast to this, there's a temptation to think the recession has triggered a backlash against healthy foods in favour of the comfort and reassurance of 'austerity' foods.

This begs the question can fast food brands manage to not only exist amongst these prophecies of doom, but also prosper? According to this study, they definitely are prospering. Of the top 50 brands, seven of them are fast food. So why are these fast food brands thriving in particular? Are there commonalities between them that make them likeable or even lovable? And what can be learnt from them?

Health Credits and Debits

Students are far more informed than ever before when it comes to what they eat. Body and image conscious, they live a life of health credits (eating sensibly, gym sessions, pursuing sports) and health debits (big blow outs, fast food). Today’s students make a conscious choice when they’re healthy and when they’re not, so how do brands influence that choice when they are ‘debiting’?


When students do have that blow out, who do they turn to? According to this research it’s Ronald McDonald, naming McDonald’s as their favorite hangover cure. This points towards nostalgia being a huge pull when it comes to brand choice. According to the British Medial Journal’s forum, half of all children in the UK eat fast food twice a week, which could suggest a habit passed down from parents. In fact the majority of the top fast food brands in this poll, today’s students have grown up with (e.g. Nando’s, 1992), but so have their parents (McDonald’s, 1974).


All brands featured are ‘quick bites’ which fit with your average 18-24 y/o’s lifestyle – whether lunch on-the-go, grabbing a quick snack to eat whilst shopping, an easy option before the cinema or a night in with mates. So it’s no surprise that all these brands that have made it into the top 100 have a sizeable presence on the high street – the natural stomping ground of teenagers and students. This, alongside them being relatively cheap, means they are highly visible and accessible.

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As well as being relatively low cost purchases, brands such as Domino’s are offer-led, which fits with the cartoon character stereotype that students always want it ‘on the cheap’. However students now have access to more disposable income / debt than ever before, as demonstrated by the increasing availability of luxury accommodation. Students are now often living the life of a graduate before they graduate. Put simply, like all of us, students like good value. They choose when to spend, and when not to.

A Strong Digital Presence – the New High Street?

Perhaps Domino’s success has more to do with being forward thinking with their progressive digital strategy. Evidence of this includes the launch of ordering pizzas by text message, integrating apps into social network sites, allowing any users to promote Domino’s Pizza and receive cash and the legendary iPhone app that took £1 million in its first three months. More significantly in 2012 Pizza Hut’s parent company Yum! recently sold off their 330 restaurants to focus on the delivery side of their business. This has led to a renewed focus of their marketing strategy on digital and social.


While the top brands all have a solid social presence (audiences ranging from tens of thousands to the millions in the case of McDonald’s and Domino’s) their strategies are wildly different. McDonald’s have a lean back approach, making no apparent effort to respond to the thousands of user comments received. In contrast, Nando’s are friendly and conversational, with a distinct tone of voice, and bursting with colour, photographs and celebrity sightings.


While it might seem far-fetched for a grilled chicken joint to be at the forefront of influencer campaigns, Nando’s have done exactly that with their Black Card. By handing out the Black Card (= free Nando’s for life) to the influential and the celebrity alike, it has now achieved cult status amongst the youth.

Fast food is holding onto this influential and significant youth market against a backdrop negative media and recession. A high street presence and offers are half the story. The brands that will go from strength to strength are those clever digital strategies and progressive social media and influencer campaigns.