Hand-spun shakes warm and fuzzy treat

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.

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.