Burgers and Placemaking

Cold, wet, dreary. That sums up the city today. On the plus side, the shitty weather has served as inspiration when thinking about lunch. Today, that’s led to the choice of a burger and sweet potato fries. The place isn’t an example of up-scale dining, but it doesn’t give you the feeling of fast food (though in reality, it probably falls into that category). Unsurprisingly, the place is packed. What is surprising is that lack of business in the typical fast food burger place just down the way. It is partly the quality of the food that makes the difference, but it’s more than that. We’re all in the know at this place, we’re all a bit more discerning, or so we tell ourselves. As it turns out, a burger isn’t just a burger and a burger joint is more than a business. They’re part of a bigger American ideal, rich with history, symbolism, and cultural significance.

Globally, fast food generates revenue of over $570 billion (that is bigger than the economic value of most countries). In the United States, revenue was a $200 billion in 2016. The industry is expected to have an annual growth of 2.5% for the next five years. That is below the long term average to be sure, but it’s coming back from a several year slump. Hamburgers specifically account for almost 60% of sandwiches eaten. They are affordable, portable, customizable, and simply delicious. They are also the quintessential American food. Most fast food and fast casual restaurants do more than hamburgers, obviously, but at their core the burger is the heart and soul of many a restaurant. So what makes the burger special?

First and foremost, hey are made from beef, which Americans do very well. Beef is king is this country. Americans ate an average 55.6 pounds of beef in 2017, according to data from research and advisory firm Rabobank. The first European settlers emigrated from a world where land was scarce and ownership limited. North America was the opposite, where land abundance enabled colonists to develop a meat-centered diet on a scale that the Old World could neither imagine nor provide. Livestock represented wealth and provided the easiest way to convert land to profit. It is also tied to the image of the individualism of the  somewhat mythical cowboy. Beef represents a connection to a rugged past where men (and it is most often represented as men) tame the land, test themselves, and embody the spirit of American greatness. It is an imaginary space rife with contradictions and historical inaccuracies to be sure, but is nonetheless part of the cultural symbolism of the American psyche. So, beyond being tasty, beef is tied to the mystique of individualism, the promise of togetherness, and the display of success. The hamburger is a cultural icon that signifies the underlying American ideal.

Second, burgers are egalitarian. When you eat one, you can bond with a stranger, shoot the shit with a friend, or hang out on a sunny day sharing a meal with someone beautiful. Burgers evoke a sense of communion because they are, in most ways, outside the socio-politics of other cuts of meat. They are a democratizer of food in that they are hand-held, simple, and foundationally unchanging in composition and presentation. Yes, they can be made upscale, and increasingly are, but at their core burgers are accessible and understandable as a food that crosses class barriers. It’s a full meal, but adaptable enough to personalize without losing what it is at its foundation. It is the centerpiece of honest food. And so it is that burgers are a food that telegraph identity.

So with this cultural clout behind the burger, why have places like McDonald’s and Burger King struggled in recent years? To my mind it’s evolutionary – they simply haven’t adapted. They’ve scoured the data and trends, but they haven’t scratched beneath the surface.

Health and Presentation. Generally fast food has a reputation for unhealthy food, while consumer tastes in the United States continue to drift towards healthier options. While still a risk, this is not a new dynamic and the industry is already fighting back successfully. Additionally, casual dining has helped shift the playing field, having a most positive image when it comes to healthiness. It should be noted that “healthy” is a loaded word. In a 2014 study by anthropologists at the University of Kansas, perceptions of healthiness are significantly influenced by the environment in which food is ordered and served. The more “homey” a place feels or the closer its association with “traditional values”, the less likely diners are to associate it with health risks. That burger may have 2000 calories, but if it’s served by a guy who looks like the embodiment of America, the more likely people will be to forgive.

Placemaking. A bare geographic space is like a brand-new home that hasn’t been lived in yet. As people begin to inhabit these spaces, they build into it to make it representative of themselves, much like we design and set up our houses to turn them into homes. This is how a place goes from just being a location to something that has a deeper meaning to its inhabitants. We look to create into the spaces we inhabit our own little corner of what is familiar to us, so that we can call a space our own. And this holds true for restaurants, as well.

But familiarity need not mean recreating the neighborhood joint. It can just as easily reference a familiar point in time or a shared cultural concept (“we’re all ex-pats here”). The point is that place can be constructed any number of ways – it’s a matter of being creative. Customers are looking for more than just a burger, even though the burger is at the heart of everything. They’re seeking a place that makes them feel like they’re among friends, a space where that feels personal. It’s about  more than getting a bite. There is a clear rejection of dining experiences that feel like they lack personality or where the vibe screams mass production.

What all of this means is that marketing a hamburger is a hell of a lot more complex today than it was in 1950. The same can be said for coffee, pasta, or pizza. The good news is that the food is so rich with meaning that there are countless avenues to go down, provided you’re open to embracing the cultural cues that trigger a sense of belonging. That means being open to a creative and sometime unusual approach to strategy and planning.


Published by gavinjohnston67

Take an ex-chef who’s now a full-fledge anthropologist and set him free to conduct qualitative research, ethnography, brand positioning, strategy and sociolinguistics studies and you have Gavin. He is committed to understand design and business problems by looking at them through an anthropological lens. He believes deeply in turning research findings into actionable results that provide solid business strategies and design ideas. It's not an insight until you do something with it. With over 18 years of experience in strategy, research, and communications, he has done research worldwide for a diverse set of clients within retail, legal, banking, automotive, telecommunications, health care and consumer products industries.

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