database marketingI just returned from two weeks in beautiful Ventura, California, where I was recording new training videos for on Outlook 2010.  In addition to beautiful weather, California is the home to the In-N-Out hamburger chain.

For those of you unfamiliar with the In-N-Out chain, they have approximately 250 locations sprinkled throughout the Southwest.  Compare that to McDonald’s who has over 31,000 stores world-wide and you’ll get a feeling for the size of this chain.  Talk about David and Goliath!  If there’s any question as to who is winning the burger war (in California at least) take a look at the drive-up lanes or ask a local which chain they prefer and you’ll have an answer.

I’m not a fast food person but the In-N-Out phenomenon fascinates me, especially after hearing Tom Hanks tell Conan that “one of the true great things about Los Angeles is In-N-Out Burger.”  And wouldn’t we all like to be the In-N-Out of our respective industries, especially those of use in the small business sector?

There are several elements that have led to In-N-Out’s tremendous success that can be easily applied by the typical business:

  1. Word of mouth advertising: When In-N-Out opened in Scottsdale, Arizona, there was a four-hour wait for food, and news helicopters hovered overhead.
  2. Loyal customers: Heisman Trophy winner Troy Smith raved about In-N-Out from the podium of the 2007 BCS National Championship Game, golfer Phil Mickelson mentioned the chain in his book, and many celebrities make In-N-Out part of their “post-awards” rituals.
  3. Customer Satisfaction: The In-N-Out restaurant chain consistently rates as one of the top fast food restaurants in customer satisfaction surveys.
  4. Good product: Celebrity Chef Gordon Ramsay was quoted as saying that he’d chose an animal style In-N-Out burger for his “death-row” last meal.
  5. Branding: The signature colors for In-N-Out are white, red, and yellow and they are used extensively. The white is used for the buildings’ exterior walls and the employees’ basic uniform. Red is used for the buildings’ roofs and the employees’ aprons and hats. Yellow bands appear throughout.  It’s not hard to miss an In-N-Out location!
  6. Not so Secret menu: The In-N-Out menu boasts four items (burger, cheeseburger, fries and drinks).  However, part of the In-N-Out allure is the “secret menu” that all employees know as the items appear on the cash register.  I suspect that knowledge of this “secret” menu makes customers feel like insiders who somehow share a private connection with the chain as they order their animal fries (topped with cheese, onions and 1000 Island dressing) and their protein burger (nestled in iceberg lettuce rather than a bun).

Maybe you can’t offer a secret menu, but you can make your customers feel like insiders by treating them like members of the family.  And although you might not garner celebrity endorsements, you can ask for referrals or post positive comments on your website.

If you’ve heard of In-N-Out please leave a comment and let me know what you think.