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January 14, 2013

What arts and cultural groups can learn from Five Guys

I’m a strong believer that arts and cultural organizations should explore the practices of for-profit companies, and assimilate what works. Take the popular burger chain Five Guys. I heard about Five Guys launching in my city from my friends. “You have to try the burger… awesome…” they said. I have tried it, and it is a great burger experience. I also noticed interesting consumer psychology at play, and began to think about how these ideas could be adapted to arts and cultural organizations.


Every Five Guys location has its walls covered with huge media testimonials about the awesomeness of the food. Consider:


“Voted Best Burger in Florida” -Best of Florida Awards, ’08, ’09, ’10 Florida Monthly

Under the large banners are smaller articles. You can’t sit in the location without noticing. These signs are not there to get people into the store. But once people are in the room, the signs project a social influence on the user experience. “Other people really like these burgers (and you will too)” they are saying. Cue the concept of the “social norm.” Humans subconsciously tend to follow the behavior of other humans to fit in. If a caveman saw bunch of people running away from something, he would get running too, or pay the price. When people go against the social norm, they risk negative repercussions, and this has emotional repercussions. In short, emotions are influenced by social norms, so your level of happiness after eating your burger can be influenced by the positive testimonials all around you.

Applied to an arts group: Have you been collecting press and testimonials of the quality of your work over the years? Print them out and put them up in your lobby. Create signboards or have a portable easel that shows great feedback from others. As people enter your location, they will see that others have liked your experiences, creating a social norm for attending one of your events.

Supporting local business

The pathway to the order counter is guided by huge bags of potatoes, which they use to make the fries. On the wall in each Five Guys is a sign that says “Today’s potatoes are from:” and a handwritten note showing the name of the farmer and the location of the farm. Five Guys is trying to appear “local” and supportive of local “Mom and Pop” operations by being transparent about where they are getting their foodstuffs. Research into attendance at farmers markets has shown that people express a preference for food which is organically grown and free from genetic modification — a healthier source of food is perceived as healthier food. Things grown by small-time operations are perceived as better than things that are grown from unknown sources. This is likely to make people feel better about eating the fries, and certainly differentiates Five Guys from other vendors.

Applied to an arts group: Are there any ways you can show the patron that you are helping local businesses? A perfect area would be at concessions — can you feature a wine from a local winery, or partner with a local bakery? Cookies from Costco are great, but they lack any feeling of local business support.

Giving something for “free”

Five Guys also gives away peanuts to people waiting in line. There are often long lines (making them look popular), and this gives patrons something to munch on as they work to the front. Patrons serve themselves, and the peanuts are free. By doing this, they are certainly priming appetites, which by itself is likely to make patrons more hungry. Additionally, by giving something for free, they are making it easier to get something in return — approval of their food (and in the end, a recommendation to friends). Research has suggested that when a deed is done for us, we feel inclined to do something back, to “make it even.” Psychologist Robert Cialdini calls this “the theory of reciprocity,” and has spent a lot of time exploring how the application of reciprocity can influence human behavior.

Applied to an arts group: Can you give something away for free?  A free talk before a performance. A free link sent to people after the performance helping them to explore the history of the work. A free chocolate on the way out of the performance — literally leaving a sweet taste in someone’s mouth. The options are limitless, but the “gift” should be of some value to the receiver. I once knew a melodrama company that gave away free popcorn, and the house manager invited the audience to throw it all over the place. It was part of the unique experience of going to that theater.

In the end, it is clear that Five Guys doesn’t shoot for the obvious — which would be to sell more burgers — using 99 cent meals or supersize techniques. Five Guys’ goal is for you to believe that you have had an amazing product experience. And that is what sells more, both to you, and your friends. 

The arts are in a perfect position to use these same techniques. We are in the business of creating wonderful and meaningful social experiences. And as a bonus, there is no risk to spending time on improving the experience of your audiences, which can now be measured with tools such as artistic impact assessment. Organizations often focus on the latest software gizmo or scalable audience development technique, but one of the safest bets is one of the easiest — focus on the patron’s experience, and make it better.

How can you apply these techniques to your organization?


Cialdini, (2003). Influence: Science and Practice, 5th ed. Boston: Pearson.
Staller & Petta, (2001). Introducing Emotions into the Computational Study of Social Norms: A First Evaluation. Retrieved from
Trobe, (2008). Farmers’ markets: consuming local rural produce. Retrieved from