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NOT for Everybody: The Paradox of Brand Inclusivity

If you walk into a Five Guys Burger and Fries with a peanut allergy, it might literally kill you.

That's because customers are offered free peanuts, which they scoop themselves from opened boxes throughout the restaurant. It's not uncommon to see peanut shells on the tables and floors before the staff has had a chance to bus the area.

So what's somebody with a peanut allergy supposed to do?

They're supposed to not eat at Five Guys.

Five Guys has intentionally made a business decision that will exclude approximately 2% of its Western customer base; that translates into 6.6 million people in the United States alone.

Wouldn't Five Guys be better off by getting rid of the free peanuts, not only from saving money on the cost of the peanuts but also by broadening its potential customer base?

You might think that would be obvious, but it turns out there are two very good reasons why Five Guys serve those peanuts.

First, the peanuts are meant as a distraction. Five Guys operates in the "quick service restaurant" category, but if you've ever been to one of the restaurants, you'll know that "quick service" isn't often what you're getting. The burgers and fries are prepared fresh, right in front of you, and that takes longer. So rather than have customers complain that their orders are taking too long, the company gives them something to do: shell and eat peanuts.

And second, Five Guys cooks its fries in peanut oil. ... which means getting rid of the peanuts scattered throughout the restaurants still won't make the restaurant 100% "peanut-free". To do that, they'd need to change the taste of one of their two core offerings... and it would almost certainly be a severe misstep for them to do that for 2% of the general population.

Five Guys has made a business decision that intentionally excludes a percentage of the population: those with peanut allergies.

If you or a loved one has a peanut allergy, you're likely going to despise Five Guys for this decision, not just because you can't eat there, but because it may embolden other quick-serve-restaurants to follow their lead, limiting your choices the next time you want a burger.

But Five Guys clearly understands something about great brands: they shouldn't try to appeal to "everybody" because there's no way they can do that successfully.

Why Great Brands Are Polarizing

When I worked at Starbucks and had to travel for business, I quickly learned not to mention where I worked during "idle chat" with the people sitting beside me at the beginning of a flight. Doing so was a lose-lose proposition: either the person LOVED Starbucks and would spend the next 30 minutes telling me about their favourite store, favourite barista, and favourite beverage... or they HATED Starbucks, and I'd spend the next half hour (or more) hearing about how the company sells overpriced, burnt coffee. There was no in-between because there was no indifference: people tend to either LOVE or HATE Starbucks Coffee.

That's a sign Starbucks is a great brand: it knows its market and caters to that customer base.

There are countless examples of companies making choices with which not all potential customers are going to agree.

Chick Fil A doesn't open on Sundays due to the religious observances of its founder, Truett Cathy. If you want a Chick Fil A sandwich on a Sunday and happen to observe one of the many religions that do not observe Sunday as a day of rest, well, you're out of luck: your options are to visit another restaurant or visit Chick Fil A on a different day. End of list.

Amazon doesn't offer a price-matching policy: if you find a product that Amazon sells for a lower price at a different retailer, you need to buy it from that other retailer.

Many people love Uniqlo, but I've yet to find a single item of clothing they sell that fits me. I'm a fairly tall, very wide man and Uniqlo's sizing simply does not cater to a man of my size: they often don't offer sizes beyond XL and the XL sizes they do offer fit small. When I need to buy clothing, I don't go to Uniqlo. But that's okay: I can go shopping somewhere else.

I could decide to petition Uniqlo to be more body inclusive and carry larger sizes. But having Uniqlo deliver on that is easier said than done: think of the extra inventory the company would have to manage, the space considerations for those extra sizes in their physical stores, and the marketing expense needed to let customers know about this expanded offering. (Expanded offering... ha!)

Asking Uniqlo for larger sizes means I'd be asking the company to adjust its business model... and for the company to do that, it has to make business sense for them.

How Great Brands Broaden Their Audience

Successful brands typically begin by catering to a single core audience with a limited product selection. Starbucks started with coffee. Lululemon began with women's aerobic pants. Nike began by selling only track shoes.

At some point, once those companies succeeded in capturing a large share of those fairly niche products, they began looking for additional growth opportunities. Starbucks eventually began to sell frappuccinos, breakfast items, and coffee tumblers. Lululemon expanded to women's activewear, men's clothing, shoes, and even a high-tech piece of fitness equipment and virtual exercise classes. Nike sells, well, almost everything related to sports.

But in each of these examples, the companies mentioned managed to broaden their target audience while remaining true to their brand. Starbucks began to sell items that made sense in its restaurants for different day-parts... they didn't start selling hamburgers and fries. Lululemon expanded its offering to men but maintained a focus on athleisure wear; to my knowledge, they don't sell winter parkas or high-end suits. And while Nike may have been the most successful in broadening its product line to appeal to a bigger audience, they still aren't for "everybody", which this case study will quickly illustrate. (Spoiler alert: years after running its controversial "Dream Crazy" campaign, Nike is doing just fine.)

Starbucks, Lululemon, and Nike each cater to an exponentially larger number of people today than they did when they were smaller, unknown brands. But they still aren't for "everyone", and likely never will be. Will Nike create a pair of "Netflix pants" with extra padding in the rear for those who prefer not to exercise? Don't hold your breath.

Why Corporate Exclusion is Okay

If you're not going to have "something for everyone", then by definition, you're not being fully inclusive. Five Guys isn't inclusive to people with peanut allergies and Uniqlo isn't inclusive to me and my large frame.

And that's perfectly okay.

Because here's the good news: corporate exclusion often creates opportunities for others.

For every "Uniqlo" that doesn't cater to larger men, there's a "George Richards" that does.

Victoria's Secret's decision not to cater to larger body types gave rise to a dozen of women's undergarment companies that do.

(It should be noted that Victoria's Secret eventually realized it was being too exclusionary, and that this was a bad business decision limiting the growth of its core product category. To course-correct, the company has since started to offer larger sizes and feature larger models in their advertising; below is a screenshot of their homepage as of the writing of this piece.)

Let me be absolutely clear: I'm not saying companies should actively or intentionally discriminate against people based on who they are: if a shop tries to not sell its products or services to a customer based on the colour of their skin or who they love, that's wrong, and in many cases, illegal. But that's also very different than making strategic business choices about what you should sell and who those products and services will appeal to most.

And it's perfectly okay if your products and services don't cater to "everyone" because the people who won't be satisfied with what you offer will go buy from someone else.

My local Fish and Chips restaurant does not serve sushi. That's because they are a Fish and Chips restaurant that almost exclusively serves fish and chips. If I walk into that Fish and Chips restaurant and ask for sushi, they'll make me go to my local sushi restaurant... which, not coincidentally, does not serve any Fish and Chips. What's a guy gotta do to get some battered cod and an order of sashimi? Visit two different restaurants.

Of course, if I wanted a restaurant that catered to "everyone", I could choose to visit The Pickle Barrel, which literally advertises they have "something for everyone".

But trying to cater to "everyone" is a strategic choice and, ironically, it's not one that "everyone" will appreciate.

The Pickle Barrel boasts it serves over 300 menu items in its restaurants. But if you've ever read The Paradox of Choice, you'd instantly recognize the problem: 300 menu items is absolutely overwhelming to most customers trying to flip through the restaurant's menu (which is the size of a short novel) and decide what to eat.

Plus, when your menu caters to the masses, it means you're preparing food to the "average"... and you can't reasonably expect to satisfy tastes above or below that middle line. In other words, you can get Eggs Benedict, Fish and Chips, and a hamburger at The Pickle Barrel, but can you reasonably expect any of those items will be better at The Pickle Barrel than they would at restaurants specializing in Breakfast, Fish and Chips, or hamburgers, respectively? Highly unlikely. You could argue that everything at The Pickle Barrel is good, but nothing is great. And that's a bug, not a feature.

Should McDonald's Serve Indian Food in Canada?

This brings me to McDonald's, and the reason I thought to write this particular piece.

McDonald's is the quintessential American restaurant. Sure, today they operate in almost every country, but they've been successful first and foremost by exporting Americana and adapting their menu when doing so was required to operate a successful business.

Perhaps the best example of this is when McDonald's launched in India. The company knew it wasn't going to sell many classic Big Macs in India because the majority of the population won't eat beef, so it adapted its menu to accommodate the region's culinary norms. But it's critical to note there are 1.4 billion people living in India, so the decision to customize its menu and capture even a small portion of India's QSR market almost certainly made sense.

Should the company make a similar accommodation for less than 700,000 people, though?

That's exactly what a petition happening right now is asking a McDonald's location in Brampton, Ontario to do: add more Indian, vegetarian options to its menu.

In 2022, Brampton had a total estimated population of 681,617 people, with almost 40% of that figure hailing from South East Asia. That's a lot of people, but is it enough to warrant a regionalization of the McDonald's menu?

Absolutely not.

You might say, "David, they're not asking McDonald's to remove options, they're just asking for additional options... what's wrong with having a more inclusive menu?"

"Nothing", I'd reply, "except it's never that easy."

I learned that the hard way while working at Yum! Restaurants International, where I was responsible for menu innovation at Pizza Hut restaurants.

When I was hired, my biggest mandate was to completely revamp and expand Pizza Hut's menu so that our restaurants could better compete with higher-end dining establishments, specifically, Boston Pizza. I knew that to do that, Pizza Hut would have to dramatically expand its offerings, and so after months of working with cross-functional teams, we developed 24 astoundingly good menu items our franchisees could implement. (By the way, that wasn't a random number: it was what our research told us we needed to "close the gap" between our existing menu and where we said we wanted to be.)

And after presenting this very detailed plan to the group... they decided to launch two new desserts. Because while they wanted the revenue a Boston-Pizza-like restaurant might generate, they weren't willing (or able) to introduce the complexity that all those new recipes would require. Adding 17 ingredients to your kitchen wouldn't be a big deal... but adding 17 ingredients to a restaurant's "back of house"? I learned that was next to impossible.

Fortunately, I learned this lesson by the time I launched Pizza Hut's "Better For You" menu: our team was able to launch two new pasta dishes and eight new pizzas in our restaurants... because we were able to do that by only introducing two new ingredients. Low complexity equalled a high degree of execution, and most of those menu items still exist on the menu today, over a decade after we launched them.

Now launching a "Better For You" menu at a restaurant most famous for its greasy pan pizza may seem counterintuitive at best, and contrary to everything I just wrote at worst.

But it's not. We had research to suggest that people were avoiding Pizza Hut restaurants because we didn't have any healthy food: if you and I wanted to go to dinner, and I wanted pizza but you wanted a salad, then Pizza Hut immediately got kicked off our shortlist of places we could go. We had grown about as much as we could grow with just pizza, so we introduced additional menu items to broaden our appeal... but the name on the building remained "Pizza Hut", and introducing a "better for you" menu didn't mean getting rid of those deliciously greasy pan pizzas.

The Lesson For Great Brands

If you want to be a great brand, you simply can't be "everything to everyone".

This means if you want to eat Indian food in Canada, McDonald's probably isn't going to be your best choice. Uniqlo isn't going to be where you shop if you're a large-figured individual such as myself.

And you should definitely stay out of Five Guys Burger and Fries if you have a peanut allergy.


P.S. After writing and publishing this post (and publishing the "Five Guys" part as a teaser on LinkedIn), I was informed by two different readers that most people with peanut allergies can safely consume peanut oil, a non-intuitive fact I was able to validate with a quick Google search. In my defence, what I originally wrote (i.e. getting rid of the peanuts but keeping the peanut-oil fries "still won't make the restaurant "peanut-free") remains technically true since there is still a small percentage of people with peanut allergies who can't even consume peanut oil, but I regret my misunderstanding and changed the sentence to "100% peanut free" for the purposes of accuracy. My broader point, though, remains intact: Five Guys has decided it's okay to have peanuts strewn about their restaurants, and regardless of why they continue to make that decision, it's their choice to make.

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