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Carl's Jr. Mile-High Bacon Burger Highlights Fast Food's Tough Road Ahead With Premium Products

LOS ANGELES, November 5, 2014 () – I recently received a coupon to try a free Carl’s Jr. new half-pound Mile High Bacon Cheese Thickburger, and when I tried it, I was pleasantly surprised to find out that it was one of the best burgers I had eaten in years. All the hype that the fast food chain had put into this burger was true, at least to me. The beef was juicy, the vegetables were fresh, and the bun truly tasted “fresh baked.”

It was so good, in fact, that I found myself at the same drive thru two days later, ready to partake in the burger again. But as I came up to the order window and I glanced at the menu, I saw the price of the burger:

It was $7.79 just for the burger itself. It was $10.29 if I wanted to add fries and a drink. And if I wanted to upside the combo, I was looking at a total bill of up to $11.59.

Plus tax.

I opted for a couple of $1.29 Spicy Chicken sandwiches instead.

This scenario hits upon the uphill battle that fast food chains have when it comes to these premium products. The problem is not the products themselves. Rather, it’s trying to find the audience willing to pay the prices for them. It’s not the fast food audience: Customers like me don’t care how good the burger is. Once we see the price, we’re always going to opt for the cheaper option. When I saw that my bill might total $13 for a burger, fries and a drink, I thought to myself: At that point, I might as well go to a restaurant, have it served to me, and maybe even get a free basket of rolls!

Now millennials—which is the target audience for these products—would buy them in theory. They demand better quality than a $1.29 chicken sandwich and are willing to pay a premium price for it. But because of fast food’s general reputation as having lower-quality food, they’re not flocking to eat Mile High bacon burgers. They’re going to fast-casual restaurants like Chipotle and Smashburger, which have reputations for good service and better quality, while still allowing customers to get in and out quickly if they’re pressed for time.

So how does a fast food chain fix this problem? More direct advertising. It’s not enough for Carl’s Jr. to use an animated character from a popular Adult Swim show to promote its Fresh Baked Buns. A stronger approach is needed. Carl’s Jr. and every other fast food chain needs to come up with marketing campaigns that directly tells millennials that the days of having no good-quality items on the menus are over. And I when I say “tell,” I mean tell! Say it point blank. Don’t beat around the bush! Just say: “Hey, we know you go to Burger 21 and Five Guys because you think the food is higher quality and better for you. Well, we’ve got something for you that’s even better!”

An ad campaign can tailor my message, but you get the drift.

Fast food restaurants have one advantage over fast-casual chains when it comes to millennials: Quicker service. A customer who goes to Firehouse Subs is a customer who still needs food quickly, and no one does speed better than the fast food industry. Combine that with the fact that these premium fast food products are getting better, and you’ve created a situation where all it takes is convincing a millennial to try one of these products one time.

Get them in there once and they’ll be hooked.

Nevin Barich is the Food and Beverage Analyst for Industry Intelligence. Email him here or follow him on Twitter here.

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