I recall seeing a McDonald’s ad for “artisanal grilled chicken” a couple years ago. The idea was pretty absurd; whether or not you like McDonald’s, “artisanal” is about the last adjective I would use to describe their food. I don’t think that they were fooling anybody, but this betrays an interesting business trend: consumers, particularly in the field of food and beverage, are more interested in local, smaller, “mom and pop” shops with improved quality. I recently read a post from entrepreneur blogger Chris Brogan, who talked about this trend. It was a really interesting post, and it made me think about modern business trends. In the post, Brogan talked about the Belgian-based brewing giant AB-InBev. Over the years, they’ve bought out smaller breweries and merged with other breweries until they now brew everything from Budweiser to craft brewery Goose Island to the Czech Pilsner Urquell. It’s an amazing roster of brews, and AB-InBev has got their fingers in the two big pies of the beer industry: the mass-produced standards that college students love, and the “craft” beers that have been growing in popularity.
Consumers want something that seems “small batch”, so that it feels local and “authentic”. Look at the two examples I wrote about above. AB-InBev and McDonald’s are both publicly-traded companies that get about as corporate as corporations can get. But they’re still courting that increasing demand for “local”. Even Wendy’s, another fast-food giant, has recently been running commercials about how their beef, unlike that of their competitors, comes from local farmers. And look at Chipotle. True, they’re in big trouble now, but about four years ago they were on top of the fast food chain. A large part of that had to do with their image of being a company that “cares” and sources “local”.
The large, impersonal brands of today such as McDonald’s and Coca-Cola owe their existence to American consumer trends that took off in the aftermath of World War II. As the country was becoming more and more connected, people wanted that consistency. It’s something Andy Warhol touched on in his paintings of coke bottles. The idea that no matter who you are or where you are, whether you’re the President in the White House or a bum on the streets of New York, a bottle of coke will always taste the same. But now the emphasis has shifted: consumers want a product and company that cares about them. This is something that smaller businesses inherently need to do if they want to stay alive, and something that bigger businesses will need to do if they want to stay relevant. These are companies that were able to navigate business trends to become the giants that they once were. And it’s not too much of a stretch to think that they can navigate these new trends, even if they’re a lot different from those before.