Why In-N-Out Burger is an Experiential Masterclass

man holding an in-n-out double double

Customized, Consistent, & Craveable Experiences

There was a period of intense rivalry between McDonald’s and Burger King in the 1970s known as the Burger Wars. The two fast food giants went on an advertising binge, with Burger King attempting to pull market share away from the perennially leading Golden Arches.

From the trenches of those burger battles emerged a slogan for Burger King that would last them well into the 21st century. “Have it Your Way” was the King’s promise to customers that unliked the set in stone Big Mac, they could customize their Whopper however they liked it. No pickles? No problem!

In 2014, the brand finally put that particular slogan to bed. But another burger chain has quietly made a name for itself over the decades as the real king of customization.

The Secret is Out: Customers Want it Customized

For 70 years, west coast staple In-N-Out Burger has been proving that customization, personalization, consistency, and speed can be scaled and sustained.

There are so many customization options at In-N-Out that many have been codified in a Not-So-Secret Secret Menu. The most famous is their trademarked “Animal Style” (a patty cooked in mustard with grilled onions, extra pickles, and extra sauce), but you can also get your burger “Protein Style” (wrapped in lettuce instead of a bun), a Neapolitan milkshake (chocolate, vanilla, and strawberry in one cup), or a giant 4×4 (four patties and four slices of cheese). Pro tip: you can get chopped chili peppers on almost anything!

Perhaps most remarkably, In-N-Out does all of this at lightning speed. Customization usually entails an added wait. No one buying a bespoke suit expects it to be ready the same day they order it. But you can personalize your order a dozen different ways and their well-oiled machine will barely hiccup. You’ll get a pristine looking meal, neatly wrapped and ready to go in no time.

Customization is a powerful value-add, but sustainable customization at speed without sacrificing quality is a brand differentiator that most competitors can’t hope to match.

two in-n-out hamburgers with french fries

Quality and Consistency Come First

Thanks to dependably great food and service, the chain has earned itself a famously loyal customer base. Burger lovers all over beg the brand to move to their neck of the woods. When Scottsdale, Arizona finally got its first location in 2002, the wait to get in was over four hours long and news helicopters covered the scene from above.

Yet, In-N-Out has resisted the urge to expand rapidly, worrying that prioritizing growth would compromise their high standards. They never move into a new region without first gaining a deep understanding of the market, including consumer expectations and supply chain obstacles. Consequently, the experience isn’t just consistent within stores but across their entire enterprise.

They are clearly onto something. A 2018 survey by Nation’s Restaurant News gave them their top “True Loyalty score, with 63 percent of respondents saying their visits are driven by a true desire to experience the In-N-Out brand, as opposed to convenience.”

An Experience That Keeps You Coming Back For More

The key to experiential marketing is arousing feelings that are greater than the sum of their parts. It’s not just the tasty food, the friendly and quick service, or the vast customization options — it’s how everything comes together to create one seamless, gratifying, and repeatedly craveable moment of burger bliss.

And lest you think that inexpensive, quick service meals are purely the purview of fast food junkies, several noted foodies and celebrity chefs are also lifelong devotees. Thomas Keller celebrated the 16th anniversary of his three-Michelin-starred restaurant, The French Laundry, with classic In-N-Out fare.

Hollywood A-Listers can also frequently be seen at Vanity Fair’s glamorous and exclusive Oscar party lining up for a paper-wrapped package of greasy goodness. According to the magazine, 1,538 burgers were handed out at the 2018 gala. All segments of society have grown to love the simple pleasure of a reliably fun throwback experience.

tom hanks jennifer garner ina garten posing with in-n-out

Some Things Never Get Old

While the rest of the fast food universe seems to be on a never-ending quest to reinvent themselves, constantly tinkering with their menu and service options, In-N-Out has found a winning formula that is timeless: friendly people, a high quality product, endless opportunities to put your personal stamp on it, and a commitment to meeting and exceeding expectations every single day.

That’s an experience that’s as desirable and appreciated today as it was when they first opened their doors 70 years ago — and one all experiential designers should strive to achieve in their own industries.

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