Social Media – Doing It The In-N-Out Way

In-N-Out Logo from the Dallas Observer Dish Blog

I am currently reading about the In-N-Out story (In-N-Out Burger – A Behind-the-Counter Look at the Fast-Food Chain That Breaks All The Rules by Stacy Perman).  If you not from the West Coast (historically California, but there are now locations in Arizona , Nevada and Texas), you may never have enjoyed an In-N-Out experience.  In-N-Out is the quintessential Southern California hamburger chain that was founded in Baldwin Park, California by Harry and Esther Snyder in 1948.

In any case, the book got me to thinking about In-N-Out’s success, it’s fanatically loyal and cult-like following and how I could relate the success to social media.  As a starting point, I know that In-N-Out’s customers provide a significant amount of word-of-mouth marketing compared to some of the largest fast food chains – so I compared their Facebook fans to the number of store locations:

Top Fastfood Chains - Facebook Fans Per Location - at 9/30/2011

My quick analysis shows that the number of Facebook Fans per location for In-N-Out is almost 8 time the closest competitor and more than 25 times McDonalds which is the largest fast food chain.  This demonstrates that size or the number of locations are not always predictors of social media success.

How did In-N-Out earn and grow this loyally rabid fan base?  What have they done differently than their competitors?  Do they have any social media secrets?  How can other brands build a similar mystique and popularity.

Here are some of the ‘rules’ that have guided In-N-Out over the years:

Keep it real simple – In-N-Out has had the same menu for the last 63 years (other than switching from Pepsi to Coke in the 1970s) and they have never varied from a simple approach of providing the freshest and highest quality ingredients for their menu.

Do one thing and do it the best you can — In-N-Out has grown organically since 1948 and all of the locations are company-owned (no franchises).  They located their restaurants near popular exits off of the burgeoning Interstate Highway system and far enough away from each other to create scarcity.   They built their distribution system and located their stores so they could deliver fresh hamburger, buns and other ingredients to every store on a daily basis.  Hamburgers are never frozen and french fries are made from potatoes that are cut in each store.

Know your customers — In-N-Out initially catered to the car culture of Southern California and the founder owned a drag racing strip in Irwindale in the 1960s.  They were also able to leverage the growing legions of Southern California surfers who could not pass up a chance for a Double-Double burger on the way home from surfing.  They have provided their customers with a consistent and quality experience for more than two generations.

Pay attention to the details –In the beginning, Harry Snyder personally inspected every potato and had very high standards from his ground beef providers.  One of the reasons for the slow growth was that Harry wouldn’t open a new restaurant until he had a valued and experienced employee who he could trust with managing the location to his exacting standards.  All employees learn the business from the bottom (generally picking up trash in the parking lot) and gradually work their way into more responsibility.

Build a strong corporate culture – In-N-Out created the In-N-Out University where they were able to imbue and reinforce the corporate culture for all new managers.  Rule number one was that “the customer is always right”, and rule number two was “if in fact, the customer was not right, refer to rule number one”.  In-N-Out was able to maintain their culture through a slow and controlled growth strategy – and they would only open a new location when they knew that they had another manager, fully trained and steeped in the culture, ready to take over.

Treat people right — In-N-Out still runs more like a family than as a business.  Even in the beginning, employees were referred as Associates and not just ‘ the help’.  This treatment led to many employees starting at In-N-Out and remaining there for their entire career.  In-N-Out has always paid more than the competition, and the current starting pay is $10 per hour and all full-time employee are eligible for health benefits.  As a result, In-N-Out’s employee turnover is much lower than the industry average which contributes to a consistent experience in every store and to maintaining the corporate culture.

You cannot argue with In-N-Out’s success, but some of In-N-Out’s strategies are actually counter-intuitive to social media best practices.

 Keep it simple — The strength of keep it simple means In-N-Out fanatically sticks to their tried-and-true model and that they never experiment with new menu items or new concepts.  Social media is all about experimenting with new ideas, so a keep it simple formula is counter to what is generally associated with social media.

Slow growth – In-N-Out took the slow route to growth and remains a private company today compared to other fast food chains that became public companies and added locations and franchises as fast as they could be built in the 1960′s and 1970′s.  Traditional social media wisdom is to grow fast, capture as many eyeballs as you can and grow customers.  On the other hand, the slow growth for In-N-Out led to scarcity and built even more loyal customers who willingly went out of their way to get their burger fix.

Closed – While social media is all about sharing and openness, In-N-Out does not share much information publicly and they never have.  In fact, they have never spent much money on advertising and it does not appear that they are spending many resources on social media.  The have an inactive Twitter account and it appears that they only passively manage their Facebook account and rarely engage with their customers.   I would generally recommend that restaurants engage with customers on Yelp and Foursquare as well, but it does not look like they are doing that either.

I do have a couple of social media recommendations for In-N-Out:
  1. Share more — As an In-N-Out fan, I want more background information on your company.  I want to know about the people and the behind-the-scenes stories that make In-N-Out the great company that it is today.  The book talks about Hamburger TV and the employee newsletter that is shared monthly, and I would just like to see some of that content shared publicly.  I also want to read a corporate blog that gives me an in-depth perspective on what is going on at In-N-Out.
  2. Engage more — I would like to see more active social media engagement from In-N-Out.  Post on your Facebook Wall, start a customer fan community, and offer more ways for customers to talk about and interact with other In-N-Out fans when we cannot make it to a restaurant.  Oh, and stop ignoring your Twitter account.

In any case, you cannot argue with In-N-Out’s success and I doubt that they will take my suggestions as their “keep it simple” formula has done very well for them.  [sidenote: if anyone from In-N-Out Management sees this post, I ready and willing to start implementing my suggestions at any time.]

Writing this blog post and reading the book have definitely given me a hankering for a “Double Double, Animal Style”.  I’m so lucky to have 2 locations within 5 miles of my house and I’m on my way to grab a quick lunch right now!

In-N-Out Double Double (Animal Style) Courtesy of Laughing Squid Via Flickr

For some other In-N-Out information, check out these links:

And for those of you who have never been inside an In-N-Out or want a quick view, here is a short teaser video from Huell Howser who does a television show on PBS called California Gold:
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