A Perfect Summer Storm

On any given summer day as you drive north on Hwy 11, you can often smell a wonderful charbroiled aroma as you hit the hill at the 'Big Chief' exit. As you descend down the hill and hit the straight away, you see a large orange bridge structure in the distance and intermittent flickering of brake lights up ahead. It is the same every time we go. If you are unfamiliar with this sequence of events, I guess you have never been to Webers.

As a person fascinated with brands, I have been meaning to share my thoughts about the brilliant branding story of Webers for years. Finally, I am sitting down to so on a rainy fall-like day, as I long for the warm days we just lost...the kind of day I would be at Webers. I have been going to Webers for more summers than I am willing to admit! It is a place I loved going to as a child and now as a parent taking my own children. It is a coveted pit-stop as families make there way up into Muskoka or Halliburton during the summer months. In our home there isn’t a trip up Hwy 11 that doesn’t involve stopping at this Ontario landmark.

Webers has a magic recipe and I am not just talking about the burgers. If you haven’t been then I encourage you to go fill your belly and stretch your legs, but it goes something like this…

You pull into a gravel parking lot quickly scanning for a parking spot and at the same time craning your neck to assess the usually long line ups on either side of the restaurant, to determine which entrance you will use. The air is filled with the glorious smell of burgers on the grill. Patrons line up outside of a smallish take out building. The music is loud, the crowd is thick and the staff are good looking young people who clearly love their summer jobs. There is a retro vibe about the take-out ordering experience.

Your order is taken while you wait in line and I swear are notated on the same skinny order pads they have been using for 40 years. You won’t find fancy toppings here; it is limited to the basics. No sriracha mayo, caramelized onions or goat cheese because tradition is what this place is about. Once they disappear back into the building to add up your bill, a different young person comes to take payment. Cash only folks and usually they already have in hand the change they assume you will need. It seems like a dated formula (no cards of any kind) however it works and the line moves quickly.

Once inside the building where you will pick up your food, the music is even louder and there's lots of shouting about orders and tremendous effort put into moving the line quickly. Staff all in white kitchen shirts are crammed behind a small pick up counter and food prep area. The grill is full of burgers being prepared before your eyes. It is noisy, hot and gives you a feeling of being somewhere that people want to be; like a hot ticket concert. People watching abounds as the hoards of customers snake through the line up.

With meal in hand you will either find a picnic table on the massive grassy grounds or a table in the old re-purposed train dining cars, if there is a sprinkle in the air. You will then enjoy a classic summer meal; in my case a cheeseburger, fries and chocolate milkshake. It is the perfect combination of tasty patty and soft delicious burger bun that gets me every time. Ahh, the memories!

The brand magic is not just (or even) about the food. A burger is a burger to some degree. Okay for sure it is yummy and consistent, you know what to expect. My burger has tasted the same for decades but it is about so much more. A visit to Webers is a sensorial experience; the enticing smells, the delicious taste, the noise from the music and the crowd itself, and of course the people watching! This is the thing about Webers - there is a cool factor that can only be achieved with the combination of all the things I have described. It is a place to see and be seen and it is the only place like it. I also believe the small building which forces lineups out the door is by design. A crowd subconsciously means there is something worth waiting for and people want what other people want, that's just human nature.

There is a certain cache about being among the Muskoka goers; all of these people on their way to/from a common summer lake or camp experience and a visit here becomes part of the tradition. You will get the occasional star sighting or run into people you know on their way to their happy places. People are usually relaxed and having fun which is the perfect marketing moment to catch the attention of consumers.

Paul Weber Senior was a clever man. One of the keys to this success story was very much about WHERE he placed the business; northbound on Hwy 11, open all summer, on the way to the place where summer fairy tales happen. Heck, let’s install a massive orange pedestrian bridge that’s impossible to ignore, over the highway so that there is access from both sides. My father remembers that it was used during CN tower construction and saw it being installed in the '80s. Webers tried eat-in versions in downtown Barrie and Orillia but it didn’t work. Other burger places have come and gone on the same stretch of Hwy but Webers has lasted because they have crafted a tradition, weaving themselves into your annual summer stories. This is the intersection of location, habit and opportunity. They have developed a grip on you.

Webers understand the power of their brand and made some smart co-branding decisions like having a ROOTS pop up shop that sells core pieces and exclusive co-branded products all displayed in a retro airstream trailer. They recently expanded their northbound parking lot to accommodate, yes more cars and guess what…Starbucks. This makes perfect sense as it taps into the same customer profile with a non-competing product line up. This satisfies the needs of the same customers who also want a latte for the road. Smart. These highly recognized brands on site also lend affirmation to unknowing customers ‘Oh, if Roots and Starbucks are here, I guess I will like this burger joint.’

Successful brands are about positive feelings, happy memories, and specific expectations. I have described the emotions of excitement and anticipation, and through that Webers has been able to develop a personal and important relationship with customers. They pull at your heartstrings; happy kids, full bellies, chocolate milkshakes, sunny days, summer traditions. What you have here folks is the perfect storm; amazing location + good food + tradition + quirky landmark + strong partner brands = one-of-a-kind experience. Just hit the repeat button.

They have stayed true to their core, stuck with a proven service model yet have modernized over the years to stay relevant and current. The lesson learned here is to be unique and continually strive for consistency in what you offer.

Keeping on grilling Webers, summer just wouldn’t be the same without you!

If you need help building your brand recipe, contact Mercer Street Consulting today.

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