We all learned at an early age not to judge a book by its cover, right? That’s bad advice when it comes to brands. On a daily basis, customers are bombarded with advertisements and challenged to make quick decisions. In a split second, a hungry fella walking past your truck is going to decide whether or not to eat your tantalizing sandwich—and the power of your brand will influence his decision.
That’s why, for competing food truck owners, it doesn’t always matter which truck has the best food. Do you need a smokin’ good BLT or cheesesteak grinder to delight your customers? Of course! But in some cases, it’s the truck with the biggest, brightest logo or the wild, zany team uniforms that draws the most attention and stimulates curiosity. These elements are secondary to finger-lickin’ good food, but they’re still essential. People will never get the chance to learn about all the amazing goodness your truck has to offer from the inside if there isn’t anything there to catch their attention from the outside.
The solution? Establish a strong, identifiable, and likable brand. Branding is the best way to communicate your message to new customers and to establish a connection with your fans. Though “branding” might sound like one of those marketing buzzwords (because it is), it doesn’t have to be too complex or as boring as cardboard. To get started, let’s figure out what brands are.
Defining Brands: Identity, Experience, and Emotion
At its most basic level, your “brand” is the complete picture of facts, images, and emotions that come to mind when a customer thinks of your food truck. That might include factors like your logo, your slogan, the colors of your truck, the way you package and present your food, social media updates, radio ads, and even the smell of beef patties grilling in the back of your truck. When people experience these elements, they associate them with your brand, and vice versa—when they hear your truck’s name, they start dreaming of the salty taste of fresh waffle fries and the bright blue and yellow wrap on your truck.
Branding is all about creating something that’s recognizable and that resonates with your audience. Your brand allows your customers to form an emotional connection with you—and it’s up to you to define the tone and depth of that relationship through the brand identity you choose.
For most businesses, branding comes down to promoting one key image or idea that people should think of when they see your truck. Think of it this way—if you had to pick one word for people to associate with your truck, what would you choose? Healthy? Gourmet? Fun?
Your brand is your identity, period. It’s the way customers get to know you. Your logo on a paper cup. The snarky humor in your tweets and Facebook updates. The special way you say “thank you” to every customer who comes through your line. Your brand is the emotion—and the memory—that a customer walks away with after enjoying lunch at your truck.
Now that we’ve got that straight, let’s figure out why you need a razor-sharp brand that’s carefully thought out.
So, a Brand is an Identity: Why Do I Need to Cultivate It?
In many ways, your brand is defined by all the ideas your customers have about you. When they see your truck, they remember the experience they had last time or the great review they read about you on Yelp. They think of how quickly you served a long line of customers during a lunch rush or how each of your recipes is inspired by your grandmother’s home-cooked meals. These expectations are important because they encourage people to return over and over again—but they also matter because once you’ve given people an idea of what to expect, you must continue to deliver it.
Your brand is effectively your company’s promise to your customers—but be sure you don’t confuse branding with advertising. There’s an easy way to remember the difference between the two. Ads explicitly tell customers to come to you, while your brand silently communicates who and what you are. Fast food chains like Wendy’s and Burger King spend lots of money on TV and radio spots that bring people in the door, but at the end of the day, it’s their brands (the promise and expectation of affordable food served fast) that keep people coming back.
Food truck fans are looking for trustworthy purveyors of amazing food—and a strong, likable brand tells them that you’re the truck that can fill their needs. They have lots of other trucks to choose from, so give them a reason to try yours first. Create a logo that sticks out or a catchphrase that draws their attention away from all the other fish in the sea. If you don’t have a clear brand in place, there’s no reason for them to try your truck over any other faceless restaurant.
Branding in Action: What Does a Great Brand Look Like?
Now that you have an idea of what a brand is and why it matters, we’re going to examine the top three qualities that great brands have and look at some examples of food trucks who are truly rocking their brand identities.
1. Great brands are easy to recognize.
They’re simple. You don’t have to explain them. People remember your truck and recall it whenever they see it in the future.
In the Corporate World: Recognizable brands include big name companies like Apple (simplicity and exclusivity), Coca-Cola (refreshing and iconic), and McDonald’s (affordable satisfaction).
In the Food Truck World: On season 4 of “The Great Food Truck Race,” everyone got to know the girls of The Frankfoota Truck pretty quickly. Though they went home in the third week of the competition, this spirited team made sure they were remembered by their strong brand identity. Their patriotic truck design, American flag pants, and creative take on hot dogs resonated with fans from across the country and helped them stand out from other trucks in the race.
FoodTruckr Takeaway: Be bold with your brand. Give people something that they’ll never forget. It doesn’t matter whether you use bright colors in your logo, a “punny” slogan, or a wild costume that sets your team apart—just create a brand experience that is yours and yours alone. Pretend that your fans are going to have to pick you out of a food truck lineup. How will you stand out?
2. Great brands have a strong emotional appeal.
They touch on a feeling besides hunger. People feel connected to your truck and get excited about buying from you because they have a positive association with your brand.
In the Corporate World: Brands with strong emotional appeal include Toms Shoes (socially conscious style) and Target (more for less).
In the Food Truck World: Baby’s Badass Burgers is one of our favorite food truck brands. Their bright pink truck, pinup girl logo, clever burger names, and beautiful “Burger Babes” all work together to create a clear, easy-to-identify brand that connects with old fans and new customers alike. When you see the Baby’s truck (manned by a team of gorgeous girls and replete with thick, 1/2 pound burgers and ingredients like black truffles and blue cheese), it’s hard to miss this truck’s message of excess and indulgence. The Baby’s brand is all about enjoying yourself, and their message has earned them fans from across the country.
FoodTruckr Takeaway: Deliver an emotional experience that customers won’t forget. Give them language and images that inspire, excite, or invite them to your truck. Whether you want people to feel cared for with a home-cooked organic meal or you want them to let loose and have a little fun with your message of zesty enthusiasm, use your brand to convey the message for maximum emotional impact.
3. Great brands are consistent.
Across the board, each new marketing, product, and service decision is made with the brand in mind. People know what to expect from your brand and they get it every time.
In the Corporate World: Consistent brands include Pixar (fun for the whole family), GM (American reliability), and Visa (accepted everywhere).
In the Food Truck World: LA’s Mariscos Jalisco food truck is well known for their shrimp tacos and seafood dishes—and that’s because they’ve been serving them up with consistency and continued commitment for more than a decade. While they switch up the menu sometimes with seasonal dishes and innovative new flavors, they always stick to the same basic concept—the shrimp tacos that are the heart of their brand.
FoodTruckr Takeaway: Consistency means that once you’ve made a promise to your customers, you keep it. It’s okay to evolve your brand over time, but you should always stick to the root of the experience they expect. If you have a cupcake truck and you want to branch out to include cookies and brownies, go for it—but make sure to keep those delicious little frosted cakes at the center of your business or you’ll risk alienating the fans who have already gotten to know and love your brand.
Developing Your Brand: Deliver an Experience They Won’t Forget
Though a creative, effective brand can sometimes be a little nebulous and hard to define, at the end of the day, your brand should clearly set your customer’s expectations and help him or her understand what the experience of eating at your truck is like. Solid, recognizable brands take awhile to develop, so you should spend some time considering how you want fans to feel when they think about, visit, and leave your truck.
Ready to deliver an experience they won’t forget? Check out Episode 002 of the FoodTruckr School Podcast, where Pat talks to Chris Adams of Rocketman Creative. Chris even put together an awesome 30+ page worksheet for food truck owners who are looking to better define and expand their brand identities. Don’t miss this in-depth look at the best branding solutions for food truck owners like you.
image by Fifth World Art