In-N-Out Burgers – Serving Great Food and Five Branding Essentials

In-N-Out Burgers

Two hamburger restaurants opened in 1948 within 45 miles of each other in the Greater Los Angeles area. Both were family-owned and operated, one by two brothers, the other by a husband and wife team – Harry and Esther. The interior of the couple’s restaurant – more of a stand actually – was barely 10 square feet. Partly due to space constraints and partly due to sheer creativity, Harry and Esther’s hamburger place featured the first drive-thru in the state of California.

Harry worked the hamburger stand while Esther took care of the accounting and operations from their nearby home. Always seeking to improve his customer’s experience, Harry worked late into the evenings in his home garage creating a way for customers to order without the need to get out of their car. Success. Harry introduced the first two-way speaker system as an enhancement to his novel drive-thru service.

More basic than the innovations to customer service was the steadfast commitment to consistently serving the best burgers and fries. Using only high-quality ingredients and cooking it to order guaranteed food that was fresh and tasted great. The concept took off. By 1958 there were five stores throughout the San Gabriel Valley. That was also the year that fountain drinks replaced bottles, allowing for a broader beverage selection.

Three years later saw what would become a significant innovation – this time to the burgers themselves. The original store created the first ‘animal style’ burger. It featured a mustard-cooked beef patty which the customer could enhance by adding their choice of lettuce, tomato, pickle or even grilled onions. The ‘animal style’ burger was the first of what would become several items available for ordering from a ‘secret menu’ of available items not listed on the menu board. Listening to the voice of the customer was inherent in the family approach to their business from the very start. In response to customer demand, the “Double-double” was introduced in 1963 featuring a double patty and double cheese.

Collectible glasses were introduced for sale in 1970 featuring a variety of characters ranging from Santa and reindeer to Porky Pig and Sylvester – even Indiana Jones made an appearance. Harry added a personal touch two years later when he had crossed palm trees planted in from of his stores. For Harry, the crossed trees marked the spot for buried treasure – and his stores were his treasure. Through the years there were many improvements and innovations. A patty making facility opened in the 1960’s, relieving Harry and Esther of the responsibility of making each burger by hand. A dedicated warehouse opened in 1975, the company’s 25th anniversary. Servers all wearing red aprons, making logoed t-shirts available for customer purchase and the all-important addition of milk shakes to the menu are but a few of the touches Harry and family added.

There were several things, however, that to Harry and Esther were set in stone. The first – an unwavering commitment to using only quality ingredients. A second was that those ingredients would always be fresh – there would be no freezers or microwaves in any of Harry’s stores. Another significant mandate was that the business would always remain family owned and operated – it would forever be a private company. These tenets, coupled with the commitment to deliver an amazing customer experience, ensure that the original vision of Harry and Esther would remain true well into the future. It’s those principles which today, have Harry’s chain of burger joints in the uppermost echelon of Entrepreneur Magazine’s list of most trusted brands. There is a legion of fiercely loyal fans across the U.S. – and the world – even though its 300 stores are limited to just six states. Through their vision and efforts, Harry and Esther Snyder built a fearless brand known as In-N-Out Burgers

Fearless Brands are built on quality, relevance and consistency

What began as a 10 square foot hamburger stand has grown into a globally known and respected brand with an almost cult-like following. Even Harry and Esther couldn’t have envisioned the event that took place in Singapore in 2014. In-N-Out announced that they would be selling their burgers for a four hour window at a ‘pop-up’ store. Fans lined up as early as 7:30 am to receive a wristband which would allow them to buy one – ONE – burger after the 11 am opening. Every brand should strive to have such widespread brand zealots.

The company itself is highly sought after by investors and hopeful franchisees alike – but this fearless brand won’t budge. In-N-Out was one of the late Bob Hope’s favorite meals – calling them ‘In and Outers’. Even with his celebrity he was turned down when he approached Harry about becoming an investor/owner.

In addition to amazing food, In-N-Out offers five powerful branding principles:

  1. Quality, quality, quality – In real estate it’s all about location. Effective branding begins – and ends – with quality. Success is built on quality – if quality is compromised, your value decreases. As Bob Burg often points out, money is an echo of value – meaning that as value declines, so will the commensurate monetary amount. Put another way – the higher the quality, the greater the value. Extraordinary value generates exceptional income.
  2. Consistency is essential – Harry and Esther hand-made the patties for their In-N-Out stores for years. Their customers knew that they would receive the same quality every time they bought a burger and fries. Consistency leads to trust. Trust creates a powerful emotional connection and that, in turn, results in enthusiastic brand advocates.
  3. Word-of-mouth marketing is invaluable – In-N-Out spends very little on advertising, marketing and promotions. They don’t have to. Their greatest source of awareness and publicity comes from their brand advocates via word-of-mouth. In-N-Out is very active in their communities, sponsoring a variety of events and causes and yes, they do advertise on a limited basis. However, with the base of awareness generated by their fans, their marketing budgets are lower than almost every other fast food restaurant.
  4. Value your employees – Managers often make six-figure incomes while employees are paid well above minimum wage. The best burger, the smoothest shake, the crispiest fries alone cannot create a genuinely powerful customer experience. Achieving that standard relies on how people deal with people. In-N-Out takes care of the people that take care of their customers.
  5. Adapt and Improvise – Consistency is invaluable. So is relevant innovation and enhancements. In-N-Out has been true to a core strategy from its first day. Their basic tenets will not change. At the same time, innovation has been a trademark of In-N-Out from the very beginning.  Being consistent does not mean don’t change at all – it means change tactics and processes which strengthens and reinforces your core brand strategy.

Oh, that other family burger stand? That was opened by the McDonald brothers. That chain has also realized significant growth and success. When comparing the strategies of In-N-Out Burgers with McDonalds’ there is no right and wrong – the approaches are just different. In-N-Out has placed its emphasis on quality, consistency and tight control of their brand’s image. That’s how In-N-Out Burgers has created – and sustained – a fearless brand. That same strategy will work in your branding efforts.

Remember, to achieve extraordinary results, deliver incredible value.


Company Branding Friday's Fearless Brand

Coach, International Speaker and Thought Partner - Bill’s mission is to add value to the world – one brand at a time. Bill guides individuals and companies alike in building what he refers to as a ‘fearless brand’. This is the process of discovering, embracing and delivering their greatest value – which allows them to realize greater profit. Read More

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