The Smell of French Fries: Fast Food Restaurants Ignore the Integrated Sensory Experience

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When I was a kid, I passed by McDonald’s during my daily route to school. The tempting smell of french fries seduced me, compelling me to walk into the shop. Thirty-something years later, I still recall my school days, and my mouth waters whenever I smell fries.

Smell, sight, touch, hearing, taste
Smell triggers memory; sound changes mood; and touch builds trust. We feel happy when we hear happy music. We almost never buy anything without touching it. Think of yourself in the supermarket and how you evaluate (hold, weigh, shake) fruits and snacks. Senses are strongly correlated to one another. A study by Martin Lindstrom and Millward Brown on McDonald’s consumers found they either like both the smell and taste, or they hate both. Rarely do they hate the smell but love the taste of the food or vice versa.

Individually, each sense is powerful, and together, all five senses dictate our emotions. Our five senses transmit the sensory inputs generated by our experiences at touch-points into our brain. I smell the french fries outside McDonald’s, look at their bright yellow rectangular shape, put them into my mouth and hear the slight crispy sound when I bite them. This integrated sensory experience, mixed with my emotions and surrounding scene, are recorded in my memory.


These days, I rarely smell that french fry smell; I don’t know why. I still regard McDonald’s french fries as the best of all, but I seem to lack the sensory drive to resume my childhood passion. Contemporary marketing communications overload consumers’ sight (think of the more than 3,000 advertisements you see each day). Despite early efforts to align various touch-points to deliver consistent brand promises, most ads neglect the senses, leaving untapped the opportunity to create an integrated sensory experience. I miss that french fry smell or, perhaps subconsciously, my school days.

Emotion curves
Fast food outlets can interact with consumers using all five senses. In reality, most fast food chains focus on only two senses: taste and sight. The operations department focuses on preparing food efficiently; the marketing department focuses on designing colorful advertising and promotion materials. Last year, Burger King opened its first outlet in China in Shanghai with the Whopper, and recently McDonald’s launched the Quarter Pounder in China. Because I am a beef lover, I visited both chains to experience them for myself. Figures 1 and 2 are my end-to-end (from entering to exiting the restaurant) experiences. I can sum my emotions at each sub-process to constitute the emotion curves for McDonald’s and Burger King. Below are my findings. (Please remember this is my personal—and biased—experience, without any statistical significance.)

    Different brand values. McDonald’s delivered the brand values: clean, convenient and efficient. While these values remain important, they may not match the most critical needs of today’s consumers. McDonald’s lags behind Burger King at psychological identification, food customization and all sensory experiences. Burger King also lacks the sensory experiences but does better with its slogan, “Have it your way,” as a value with which target consumers identify.

Different sensory experiences. Both outlets ignored the sense of smell, outside and inside the restaurant. Burger King was a bit quieter than McDonald’s, which echoed with kids’ noise and the beeping sound of the kitchen machines. At McDonald’s, the pre-packaged Quarter Pounder did not resemble the advertising; the burger seemed to shrink after packaging. On the other hand, although I had to wait longer to get my made-on-the-spot Whopper, the beef had almost the same look and thickness as the burger in the marketing collateral. Expectation meets experience. Also, the size and shape of the burger does affect perceptions, making it taste better.

Different shapes of emotion curves. The McDonald’s emotion curve is gentler than the Burger King curve. What does this mean? Consumers love and hate Burger King more excessively than they do McDonald’s. Is this good? Well, if you ask your friends where to eat lunch, rarely does anyone suggest McDonald’s as their top choice, unless there is an outlet nearby and you are looking for a fast lunch. The experiences at McDonald’s are too flat, and no one has an outstanding experience there. Most consumers want more variety, a local menu and healthier food. By trying to please everyone, a restaurant pleases no one. It’s quite difficult to please everyone.


Intra-experience anchoring People are comparison animals. Whether we feel good or bad is largely the result of comparing with others. When you go to a luxury store, where everything is expensive, a T-shirt selling for $50 seems like a bargain to you. The same T-shirt selling elsewhere at the same price does not. After spending three weeks as a volunteer in a poor country, the typical person feels that his or her own life is much better. Why? Because our experiences cause us to set our anchors differently. We benchmark against experiences (inter-experience). We also benchmark within an experience (intra-experience).

Queuing up at Starbucks, DIY service at IKEA and flights without meals on Southwest—these are all examples of “pain” within an experience. But without those pains, the greatness of the pleasures they generated would not be as evident. Yes, I am suggesting that we need some pain within experiences, and you may need to create some pain if there is none currently. People need pain to contrast with pleasure. The same pleasure feels like more pleasure once we go through some pain. Pain is a necessary “angel” when you design the customer experience. Not only does it help contrast with the pleasures of the experience, but also it can free up resources and release constraints.

It’s a tough competitive environment for fast-food chains. Why don’t they create unique branded experiences by reallocating their resources to the much less crowded area of sensory experiences? Why not recreate the smell of beef grilling over charcoal or fries sizzling in oil in the in-store air and on the food wrapper? This is probably done at the bakery at your supermarket and with artificial “new car” smell.

Customer Experience Sub-processes: Fast Food Restaurant

1. Shop Location and Outlook 11. Transaction Efficiency
2. Smell Outside Shop 12. Seat
3. In-store Decoration 13. Cleanliness
4. Music and Sound 14. Smell of Food
5. In-store Smell 15. Package and Shape of Food
6. Queue-up Time 16. Taste of Food
7. Price 17. Healthiness of Food
8. Food Variety 18. Psychological Identification
9. Food Customization 19. Washroom
10. Staff Service 20. Exit (Goodbye)

Why not create a branded McDonald’s or Burger King sound or music? How about aligning the size, shape and packaging of the food with the photos in the advertising? In addition, both chains can actively explore the bottom-line of pain: What is the maximum level target consumers tolerate? How long will they wait in line? Will they wait for a clean table?

Through intra-experience anchoring, companies can maximize the gap between the enhanced integrated sensory experiences and the pains. Work out a healthy branded emotion curve, and create your own integrated sensory experience.

2 COMMENTS

  1. Indeed Mr Lee you seem to have pointed out the right sensory effector effecting the customers experience. These all might just be true for the food industry sales but sight and touch are the senses almost effecting any form of sales relating to any industry. Some researches indicate that the placement of a product on a retailers shelf can effect the number of sales of the product. If the product appears unclean or is out of reach, the effects are adverse.
    Business to consumer based entities are focusing ever more now on the packaging and therefore the
    packaging industries are investing ever more into the design art departments. The package can support and maybe increase the number of sales of the product on the shelf. I myself have at times purchased products that i had no need of just because the product’s packaging appeared to be attractive.
    A product that appears tempting on the shelf definitely stands out because the customer basing his decision on his senses with definitely favor the tempting product over its competitor.

  2. What the hell, artificial smells? You’re suggesting they entice people by making artificial smells in their restaurants?

    That’d be the fastest way to keep me out of them. You have any idea how bad petroleum based artificial scents are to you?

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