Learning from the new menu items Canadians like best

Marketing the menu: Learning from the new menu items Canadians like bestBy Denis HancockMarch 31, 2015

Marketing the menu: Learning from the new menu items Canadians like best

BrandSpark launched its inaugural Best New Menu Item (BNMI) Awards last year to celebrate great new menu items that restaurants are launching. Another goal of the program — with items voted on entirely by consumers — is to learn exactly why consumers love these menu items so much.

In order to help restaurants make their next round of menu innovation even better, here are a few of the things we learned:

Keeping it real

Be innovative, but don’t say you are innovative. The word “innovation” is commonly defined as “something new or different introduced,” so it would seem natural to use in relation to new menu items. But when it comes to food, consumers typically respond negatively to the word innovation. The reason is that it conveys something artificial or unnatural, at a time when more and more consumers are looking for the exact opposite – natural ingredients and “real food.” So while it can be good for chefs to be innovative in creating new menu items, don’t use that word with consumers. Instead, focus on the details of what makes it so great.


Healthier options that also taste great can be huge winners. Many veterans of the restaurant industry have a very skeptical perspective on adding healthier options to the menu. Often this is borne from many years of hearing reports that Canadians are looking to eat healthier, accompanied by many new, healthier options languishing on the menu because nobody buys them. But when you look at the healthier options being offered at many restaurants, they are often an after-thought – menu items added to address the “veto vote,” in the family and often with the health aspect coming from many of the (delicious!) things being taken away.

Health + taste = success

Ardent Mills Organic 2016

We have also been seeing a lot of momentum behind “health without sacrifice” menu options – things that are healthier, yes, but still taste amazing (and often feature premium ingredients). Extreme Pita’s Spring Fever Pita, one of the big winners in the 2014 BNMIs, is a really strong example of this with ingredients including fresh berries, spring mix, goat cheese, balsamic dressing and grilled chicken. Healthy menu options are where the most innovative thinking is required – and when you get the taste right there can be a great pay-off.

Fish and seafood options resonate extremely well – with a narrow band of consumers. One of the BNMI categories that garnered the highest number of votes overall was comprised of fish (or lobster) burgers and subs. Those who eat this type of menu item seemed to really like them for similar reasons to what was referenced above – they not only taste great, but many are perceived to have premium ingredients, and be a bit healthier than other options. That said, within QSR it’s still a relatively small group of consumers that choose fish burgers (vs. beef burgers). It will be interesting to see if that changes over time.

The comparison factor

Make sure you have all the relevant comparison points. In addition to testing new menu items from different restaurants against each other, the BrandSpark program focuses on how consumers believe a particular menu item compares to other items from that restaurant, and also how it compares to similar menu items at competitive restaurants. This is important context because in some cases a new menu item can (for example) be rated highly in the category, but actually be seen as worse than other things your restaurant offers – meaning customers are walking away less happy than normal.

Remember that “early adopters” have different tastes than everyone else. Some people love trying new menu items at restaurants; some people don’t. And it’s important to remember the tastes of these groups are often quite different – with the former group being (predictably) a bit more daring. For example, when you focus on the consumers that love trying new menu items, they had a lot of interest in trying “ethnic” flavour profiles like Thai and Indian at quick service restaurants, while the broader set of consumers leans towards more traditional flavour profiles like Italian. This makes culinary adventure seekers particularly interesting to study for short-term menu promotions, but a little less interesting for longer-term or permanent menu items.

This is just a sampling of what we’ve been seeing in 2014 – to learn more about the awards and study, visit www.bestrestaurantawards.com.

See also: 

About the author

Denis Hancock is Director of Consumer Insights at BrandSpark International, a leading brand, marketing, and product innovation research company with over 10 years experience in the restaurant industry.

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