As discussed in last week’s blog, since the turn of the new millennium fast food and restaurant chains have gotten a bad rap. They’re seen as over-processed, high in calories and fat, and just generally bad for your health. This perception is not unjustified. One of the most famous fast food menu items, BigMac from McDonald’s, contains 530 calories, 27 grams of fat, 47 grams of carbohydrates, and 960 milligrams of sodium. Not exactly what you reach for if you’re looking to slim down. With Americans looking to alter their health and weight, fast food restaurants need to adjust. Since the mid-to-late 2000’s, fast food restaurants and well-known restaurant chains have begun to adjust their look.
They’re choosing to communicate health and wellness through alternative menus, which, for the purpose of this blog, I will deem “healthy menus.” Are these “healthy menus” really allowing consumers to make better choices, or is it more strategic communications by the restaurants?
In 2007, Subway became one of the first fast food chains to launch a healthy alternative menu as a part of their “Eat Fresh, Live Green Initiative.” This menu, which they titled the FRESH FIT menu, includes items that that contain 6 grams of fat or less. However, that is without any additional condiments such as cheese or sauce. In terms of nutritional value, it is likely a good option for fast food. All of the FRESH FIT menu items are approved by the American Heart Association. However, this FRESH FIT menu fails to reassure customers with other aspects of health and nutritional value such as protein, carbohydrates, saturated versus unsaturated fat, sodium content, and fiber.
Other fast food restaurants began to follow suit. In 2008, Dunkin Donuts launched their DDSMART menu which promises “better-for-you options.” These options must meet the criteria of having 25% fewer calories; 25% less sugar, fat, saturated fat or sodium than comparable fare, and/or contain ingredients that are nutritionally beneficial. However, many of these menu items are simply their counterparts made with artificial sugar substitutes or reduced-fat alternative ingredients.
In 2010, Taco Bell launched their “Drive-Thru Diet,” now known as their “Fresco” menu. Also in the early 2010’s, chain sit-down restaurants began to follow the trend fast food was setting. In 2010, the International House of Pancakes (IHOP) launched their “Simple and Fit” menu. And in 2011, The Cheesecake Factory, a place known for their heavy meals and large portions, launched their “SkinnyLicious” menu. Today, many other popular fast food and sit-down chains now claim their own healthy menus.
It is clear that these restaurants are trying to communicate to their patrons that they don’t need to be avoided when they’re on a diet or trying to eat healthier. But how are they communicating this?
It’s all in the marketing.
First and foremost is the wording used to label these menus. Words such as “fresh,” “smart,” “skinny,” and “fit” all trigger associations with health. We view these foods as better for us because they use the words we use to describe what we aspire to be. If you want to be skinny, you eat off of the SkinnyLicious menu. If you want to be fit, you eat off the FRESH FIT menu.
Second is the imagery associated with these menus. Color in particular is an important trend. Green is generally associated with health, freshness, and serenity. While a deep green is associated with wealth or prestige, a lighter green is associated with calmness. Nearly every single one of these menus’ logos or advertisements uses a lighter shade of green. These menus are attempting to portray to consumers that they are associated with healthy and fresh, good-for-you food. The Dunkin Donuts DDSMART logo even features a green figure that looks as though he is running, attempting to portray not only better food but better lifestyle.
These two trends combined present a brand that is concerned with health and wellness. Restaurants use these menus to communicate to their customers that they don’t need to be left out of your diet because in-fact, they are good for you. Dunkin Donuts’ DDSMART Corporate Promise states that their goal is to offer customers “great-tasting choices that fit your lifestyle and meet your dietary wants and needs.” Customers changed what they wanted out of food and lifestyle, so restaurants changed their menus.