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It may not be the very first name to come to mind when consumers think of burgers, but In-N-Out Burger could be the coolest. For those in the know, the joy of a Double-Double comes not just from the flavor but also from the realization that the chain is devoted to food, not to the latest toy craze, not to unstoppable expansion, and not to traditional advertising methods. As a result, In-N-Out has become something of a tourist attraction in Southern California, the result of years of customer loyalty.

You cannot find an In-N-Out Burger wherever you go. They aren’t in food courts around the country. They aren’t in foreign lands. The brand cannot be purchased in the frozen foods section of the supermarket. Loyal customers believe the company repays them for their business by not making it easily available to everyone, which creates a sense of exclusiveness, as well as a bond of trust between the company and its customers.

Instead of emphasizing the development of new products and promotions to compete directly with the big burger chains, In-N-Out offers quaintness and a familiar menu. This focus does not mean, of course, that In-N-Out simply ignores marketing, but management shows great faith in the brand by emphasizing mainly awareness campaigns and word-of-mouth effects. Thus, bumper stickers and t-shirts are key components of the marketing strategy; these simple branding items convey a feeling of belonging to customers, as well as ensuring widespread awareness of the brand every time the customer drives her car or wears his hip shirt.

Another key element of its marketing relies on its retail locations, which In-N-Out has traded on to create a deceptively simple billboard strategy. The neon arrows and large signs that direct people to the restaurants often promise no more than an “In-N-Out Burger 1.5 Miles Ahead,” but the laid-back attitude is cool enough to keep people coming. Acknowledging the prevalence of cars in Southern California, it also provides a pocket-sized booklet listing all its locations and a map finder on its Web site.

Discussion Questions:

  1. Should In-N-Out expand into new markets?
  2. How can other chains copy In-N-Out’s strategy and success?

Stacy Perman, “In-N-Out Burger’s Marketing Magic,” BusinessWeek, April 24, 2009.