The fast food industry is in a constant state of evolution. As consumer preferences shift and demographics change, fast food businesses must adapt their target markets to stay competitive. Historically, the core consumer base for fast food has been young, price-sensitive customers seeking convenience. Teenagers and young adults, often with limited budgets, look for quick, satisfying meals. However, these are not the only customers smaller fast-food restaurants can target.
For food entrepreneurs, starting a fast food establishment can be challenging. You are up against some of the biggest food brands in the world. Names like McDonald’s, Burger King, and Chick-fil-A are well-known go-to fast-food destination spots for many individuals and families.
Even though this is the case, it does not mean new fast-food establishments cannot come in and capture market share. Many people are looking for alternatives to established brands in hopes of finding a fast and convenient option that works best for them. In this article, we’ll look at some target audiences that fast food restaurants of all kinds are targeting.
The Health-Conscious Consumer
Historically, fast food restaurants have not been known as the healthiest option for dining out. Fast foods typically contain high-fructose corn syrup, sugar, artificial sweeteners, salt, coloring agents, and other potential disease-promoting ingredients. They are also more likely to be higher in fat and calories. However, as the public has become more aware of the dangers of unhealthy ingredients, the demand for healthier options has increased. In fact, more restaurants are offering healthier choices for kids as well as adults.
With 37% of Americans now following a specific diet, such as Keto, Paleo or Whole 30, fast food restaurants can capture this market with the right menu items.
For example, plant-based meat alternatives have become more than a trend. The Plant Based Foods Association reports that U.S. retail sales of plant-based foods have continued to increase to about 27%. Along with meat alternatives, healthy fast food restaurants should include a good selection of salads, bowls, and soups.
Beyond just offering salads, fast food businesses are re-engineering their recipes to reduce sodium. They can also promote the elimination of trans fats and the inclusion of whole grains. Fast food restaurants looking to capture the customers who eat for nutrition can also add superfoods like quinoa, avocados, and spinach to their menus.
Targeting the health-conscious consumer also means reimagining marketing strategies. It’s not just about the nutritional content; it’s about a brand’s identity. Fast food businesses targeting this audience should also highlight the freshness of ingredients and any farm-to-table processes. This transparency is critical as it aligns with the values of health-conscious consumers. Remember, this demographic not only wants to eat healthily but they also want to feel good about where their food is coming from.
The fast food industry has benefited from the on-the-go society we currently live in. Consequently, busy professionals are one of the industry’s prime targets. Time-strapped professionals are not just seeking speed, they want convenience and value.
The digital transformation within the food service sector has been rapid. Fast food chains are now integrating digital ordering systems, contactless payments, and order-ahead options. These advancements resonate with people who value their time. For instance, the usage of mobile ordering and payment technology has been on a consistent rise. One estimate finds online food ordering has grown 300% faster than dine-in since 2014 and now accounts for roughly 40% of total restaurant sales.
This demographic also values locations that cater to their need for a quick respite or an environment conducive to work. As such, fast food chains are redesigning spaces to include free Wi-Fi, power outlets, and quieter zones for those who may wish to dine in and work simultaneously.
To capitalize on the lunch crowd, some chains are creating express lines for digital order pickups and spots for curbside delivery. This makes it easier for workers to return to their offices or move to their next appointment. Workers looking for convenience is also a good target market for food trucks as well as fast food establishments.
Late-Night Cravers and the Snack Culture
The fast food industry has become a haven for late-night cravers. More and more, society is operating on a 24/7 cycle. Because of this, fast food outlets serve as a place to grab a midnight snack or an early morning bite. While some statistics show that late-night meal orders have dropped the past year by 11%, There is still a market for grabbing a meal later into the night.
The rise of food delivery apps and online ordering has helped sustain this sector. Delivery services have expanded the reach of fast food beyond the constraints of store location and operating hours. This enables consumers to satisfy their cravings whenever and wherever. For example, DoorDash reported that late-night ordering increased 37% last year.
The budget-focused consumer has always held significant sway. In times of economic downturn, most people do not have as much disposable income as they did during a boom. So many more people turn to fast food as an option. The importance of this market segment has led fast-food chains to engage in price wars. Fast food chains have mastered the art of promotional marketing to attract budget-focused customers. Limited-time offers, “buy one, get one free” deals, and seasonal specials are marketed aggressively to draw in those looking for the best bang for their buck.
Here are the names of some of the most recognizable lower-priced menus:
- McDonald’s – “$1 $2 $3 Dollar Menu”
- Taco Bell – “Cravings Value Menu”
- Burger King – “Value Menu”
- Wendy’s – “4 for $4 Menu”
- Subway – “Fresh Value Menu”
- Dunkin’ (formerly Dunkin’ Donuts) – “$2 Snack Menu”
- Jack in the Box – “Value Jack’s Way”
While these menus work great for well-known chains, smaller independent fast-food restaurants may not be able to compete directly with these giants. For smaller fast food places, the strategy should be to offer smaller and more affordable options. However, those options do not need to be priced as low as $1,$2, or $3.
In targeting budget-focused consumers, fast food businesses have become adept at navigating the fine line between cost and quality. The value menu, while economical, is no longer about just the price—it’s a menu designed to reflect the economic realities and preferences of a substantial segment of the population. Affordability need not come at the expense of flavor or satisfaction.
As we mentioned earlier, technology plays a big role in the fast food segment. Now, younger generations from Millennials to Generation Alpha (born 2010 through 2024) expect their food establishments to integrate a higher level of technology to enhance their experience.
Fast food chains have responded by integrating things like QR codes and even implementing artificial intelligence and machine learning to predict consumer preferences. Also, social media plays a pivotal role in the digital-savvy generation.
This group is more likely to engage with brands that have a strong social media presence and are influencers in their own right. Platforms like Instagram and TikTok have become essential arenas for fast food marketing. Fast food restaurants can leverage visually appealing food presentations and trending challenges to engage these young consumers. 63% of Millennials, 56% of Gen Xers, and 52% of Gen Zs said they’ve tried a new brand or product based on an ad they saw on social media in the past month.
This connection to technology also fuels their food choices. For example, Gen Z diners like their food to be “Instagrammable”. This means that the taste of the food as well as how it looks is important. While most will not post meals from larger chains, they will post content from smaller or less well-known restaurants.
Controversy Around Marketing Fast Food to Youths
There is, however, a downside to marketing to younger generations. Frequent and widespread exposure to fast-food marketing increases young people’s preferences for, and consumption of, fast food. This means that if the advertising works, children will be consuming higher amounts of calories, sugar, fat, and sodium. This is potentially problematic given the rise of childhood obesity in America
Another controversial topic in the realm of fast food marketing is the allocation of advertising towards minorities. One study found fast-food companies were spending more on advertising, disproportionately targeting Black and Latino youth.
For smaller fast-food restaurants, the balance of marketing to the younger generation should be a goal of any campaign. When marketing to younger generations, businesses need to be aware of biases or potentially harmful long-term effects of targeting this specific demographic. They should also seek to market and promote healthy options to encourage younger audiences to eat food that is also healthy.
The Suburban Shift
Another trend impacting target markets is the suburban shift, where populations move away from urban centers, leading to an increase in demand for fast food options in suburban areas. This movement expands the target market from predominantly urban dwellers to include suburban families and individuals.
Fast food businesses targeting this group often emphasize drive-thru service, family meal deals, and community involvement.
The target markets for fast food businesses are as varied as the menu options they offer. As the global population evolves, so does its demographic makeup. Immigration, aging populations, and urbanization all play roles in shaping target markets. Fast food businesses must consider these shifts. Adapting their products and marketing strategies to cater to a more diverse and cosmopolitan customer base. This could mean offering ethnic cuisines, senior discounts, or urban store concepts. By understanding and engaging with these diverse target markets, fast-food businesses can ensure their continued growth and relevance in a rapidly changing world.