Microkhan by Brendan I. Koerner

The Appeal of Uniformity

February 23rd, 2010 · 3 Comments


An Applebee’s recently opened up here in Atlah, and it’s doing pretty decent business on a strip of 125th Street that attracts scant foot traffic at night. Perhaps we shouldn’t be surprised at the restaurant’s success, seeing as how we praised the chain’s business acumen in a 2005 Slate column. But we do find it a bit disconcerting that so many diners opt for the familiar, despite the abundance of higher-quality local joints within a half-mile radius. (Every single item on the menu at Tropical Grill is vastly superior to Applebee’s warmed-over offerings.)

But the majority of consumers prefer to bet on a sure thing rather than gamble on an unknown quantity. And few businessmen of recent vintage have had a better understanding of that truism than Sam Ross, the man who founded Fantastic Sam’s (aka Fantastic Sams—the current owner didn’t think that America could handle the apostrophe s). Ross’s masterstroke was compelling employees to go by pre-selected nicknames, which resulted in a uniformity of experience that should be the envy of McDonald’s:

Through a series of sometimes ingenious moves, hair care franchisers attempt to convince the consumer that all stylists in their salons are the same. Fantastic Sam’s, the nation’s leading hair care franchise, did not allow its stylists to use their own names; instead, they had to accept standardized nicknames (such as Bubbles or Peaches). Every Fantastic Sam’s outlet had a Bubbles and the consumer could get his hair cut by Bubbles in Los Angeles or in New York. Even the stylist’s business card had to carry the standardized nickname and not her real name.

Note that we had to change the above quote to the past tense, since the chain no longer forces a narrow range of nicknames upon its stylist. As it turns out, some women took great offense to being forced to go through life as “Buttercup” or “Foxy.”

By the way, we included the clip above only because it’s such a great example of a classic Madison Avenue technique: stacking the deck. The narrator is right—you really can’t tell the two haircuts apart. But there’s something else about those ladies that makes them look quite different from one another. Whatever could it be?

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3 Comments so far ↓

  • Jordan

    There’s a really interesting bit in Neal Stephenson’s “In the Beginning was the Command Line” about the desire for uniform experiences.

    On the flip side, it’s been interesting the hear the arguments put forth in various quarters about how crowd-sourcing apps like Yelp should reduce the appeal of uniform experiences. The gist is that people valued uniformity because it meant a minimal level of quality in an otherwise unfamiliar environment. But once you reach a point where you can call up a host of other experiences to rate the quality of a particular place wherever you go, the risk of trying something new goes down a lot.

  • captured shadow

    I ate at an Applebee’s once. I should have gone to Denny’s instead.

  • Brendan I. Koerner

    @Jordan: Great point re: how the Yelping of America is changing our expectations. Indeed, it no longer makes sense to opt for a national chain if your little networked device informs you that there’s a local joint of superior quality nearby.

    @captured shadow: Denny’s does a couple of things well, particularly for breakfast. But beware of anything fancier than a grilled cheese when ordering for lunch or dinner. I’m pretty sure “tilapia” is their code word for “various bottom feeders pressed together into a semi-rectangular shape”:

    http://www.dennys.com/en/menu.aspx?menuid=1&parentid=64

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