A woman pulls into the drive-thru at the South End Chick-fil-A during the post-breakfast, pre-lunch lull. Inside, her order pops up on a screen.
It's a cookies and cream milkshake. But as Chick-fil-A's marketing and branding campaigns convey, it's not just any milkshake – it's a hand-spun milkshake.
Which means that it's more than a milkshake, it's a message. Specifically: We may be fast food, but we're a cut above the norm.
Chick-fil-A introduced a line of shakes it calls “hand-spun” in mid-2006. Last month, Wendy's joined in with its own, made by blending its traditional Frosty dessert with flavored sauces. “Hand-spun is waaaay better,” the chain's promotional materials proclaim.
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In times marked by war and economic distress, marketers tend to appeal to consumers' sense of nostalgia and comfort, and the recent appearance of hand-spun shakes is an example of that, said Steve Manning, managing director of Igor, a naming and branding firm.
“They're trying to move away from the idea of fast food … make it less clinical and warm it up,” said Manning, who does not work with Wendy's or Chick-fil-A.
“They're also trying to convey some sort of difference, whether it's real or not, between their shakes and, say, McDonald's shakes.”
At the most basic level, “hand-spun” is just what it sounds like: Each time someone orders a shake at Chick-fil-A or Wendy's, the treat doesn't just emerge from a machine – an employee mixes at least part of it by spinning ingredients with a blender.
“Hand-spun” helps situate the chains' food in the increasingly popular middle ground between handmade and machine-made products – prepared, but customized, said Deepak Sirdeshmukh, an assistant professor of marketing at N.C. State University.
Store owner John Tsumas of the South End Chick-fil-A says they're a good way to attract customers looking for a snack.
For Wendy's, the shakes offer another benefit: They give the chain a frozen dessert customers can drink with a straw, unlike the still-available original Frosty.
The risk of brain freeze, however, remains very much the same.