Story of a brand: the cult of In-N-Out Burger

How merchandising, menus and – curiously – religion became key parts of the fast-food chain’s DNA.
In-N-Out 16x9 Hero-min

The quintessential California brand started as the state’s first drive-through hamburger stand in 1948. The founder, Harry Snyder, would visit local meat and produce markets to hand-pick fresh ingredients each morning.  

Customers caught on to the quality of Harry’s burgers as well as his commitment to maintaining a spotless environment in restaurants as the brand grew. There’s been a sense of community around In-N-Out since its beginnings, cultivated by Harry’s desire for team members to be treated as family. That same sentiment spilled over to customers, who were always greeted warmly. 

Harry also paid close attention to customers’ requests, which played a big part in crafting the In-N-Out menu that rarely changes. The first Animal Style burger appeared in 1961 and the Double-Double followed in 1963, both in response to customer requests. The off-menu items arrived later.  

The In-N-Out logo’s arrows denote the chain’s fast service, while the palm trees relay its California vibe. 

Harry Snyder died in 1976, and his son Rich took over. Rich continued the traditions of his father and began to use the brand as a channel for doing good in the California communities where the restaurants were located. He introduced the first customer service line, started a Feed the Homeless programme, and established the In-N-Out Burger Foundation to aid centers for abused children. Under his leadership, the group grew to 93 stores. 

Today, In-N-Out’s approach stands out among all the millennial brands of recent years, with their muted pastels and minimalist fonts. In comparison, In-N-Out is colourful and intentional with its branding, while also being transparent about its values. It’s not afraid to uphold its principles and, by taking a stand – consistently – it has built a following far beyond its physical reach. 

Aside from the quality of the food, there are three lesser-known aspects of In-N-Out that have also helped it reach cult status: its merch, its secret menu and its religious branding.

The merch 

Brands launching merch has become standard practice. But that wasn’t the case back in 1975, when the first In-N-Out T-shirts went on sale sporting a design by Harry: a cartoon of a man flipping burgers. A few years later, his other son Guy Snyder introduced new designs inspired by his own love of cars and racing. In 1984, In-N-Out announced that a new T-shirt design from an artist would become an annual tradition. 

Today, brand loyalists can purchase everything from beach towels to the oversized safety pins that secure In-N-Out employees’ aprons. In-N-Out also recently partnered with luxury jewellery brand Alex and Ani to release a custom charm bracelet, complete with the yellow arrow from its logo. And when In-N-Out opened its first Colorado restaurants last year, it collaborated with a local artist on a range of tees. And there are far too many more lines of merch to list.

From early on, In-N-Out became an expert in building brand awareness and promoting products, services and events. Eddie White, founder of Fast Eddie’s fried chicken sandwich delivery over in Barcelona, Spain, says: ‘It’s fascinating how people know about In-N-Out even though they’ve never tried it. I have an In-N-Out T-shirt and people always comment on it. I ask them, “Have you tried it?” and they always say “no”, but they want to. 

‘It also has this classic drive-in, very Americana, Route 66 vibe,’ says Eddie of In-N-Out’s nostalgic but timeless branding. ‘It’s playing on something that’s already stuck in the minds of not only Americans but people all over the world.’ 

In-N-Out was early to recognise that when customers develop a sense of brand loyalty, they build an emotional connection to a business. Not only do they feel like they belong, but they also get excited to represent that company in some way, as a fan and an advocate.

The secret menu 

In-N-Out even has its own language in the form of a secret menu, for people that are in the know. It’s based on commonly customised orders and developed as a kind of shorthand understood between loyal customers and staff. 

‘People fetishise In-N-Out and it’s cool to know the brand, and doubly cool to know its secret menu,’ Willa Zhen, a sociocultural and food anthropologist, said recently. 

Not that In-N-Out ever intended to launch its secret menu in the first place. Instead, it grew organically over time when staff created variations of basic menu items after repeated requests from customers. People started customising their burgers by adding or subtracting toppings like tomatoes, grilled onions and even eliminating the meat altogether. Over the years, a list emerged of popular burger variations that don’t appear on the official menu but are passed along by word of mouth.

For example, a burger ordered Animal Style comes with mustard, pickles, grilled onions and extra special sauce. For those on a low-carb diet, the Protein Style burger replaces the bun with lettuce. The 4x4 has four meat patties and four slices of cheese.

‘Over the years, many of those variations were given names, usually by the customers who frequently ordered their burger that way,’ Carl Van Fleet, In-N-Out’s vice president of planning and development, told the New York Times back in 2013. ‘Some of the names just stuck.’ 

Above all, the now not-so-secret menu has developed a sense of inclusivity among customers. It’s what’s behind the slow-spreading buzz that’s helped the restaurant build a cult following among its most loyal diners. ‘There’s a term “idiolect”, which is a language spoken by either one person or a small group of people that they create themselves,’ says Vaughn Tan, a strategy consultant and author of The Uncertainty Mindset: Innovation Insights from the Frontiers of 

Food. And, he says, In-N-Out does a great job of tapping into this. ‘Secret menus are good when they allow people to feel as though they’re a part of something that other people aren’t.’

The church of In-N-Out 

In-N-Out first introduced bible verses to its packaging in the nineties – and they remain there today. Like John 3:16, which is printed on the paper cups and reads: ‘For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life.’ Or like Revelation 3:20 on the burger wrappers: ‘Behold, I stand at the door, and knock: if any man hear my voice, and open the door, I will come in to him, and will sup with him, and he with me.’ 

‘They were put there by our then-owner Rich Snyder, whose goal was to express his faith,’ explains In-N-Out spokesperson Kathleen Luppi. But while outwardly religious business owners in the US are nothing new, it’s not as common today to find large, mainstream brands that display those beliefs quite so publicly. After all, experts say again and again that branding and religion don’t easily mix.

Yet instead of phasing out the religious proverbs over time, In-N-Out has doubled down. ‘Rich passed away in 1993, but the scripture references remain,’ says Kathleen. They’re everywhere, in fact, with In-N-Out’s current president and owner Lynsi Snyder selecting ‘additional verses to add when there have been opportunities,’ she adds. ‘I added verses to the fry boat, coffee and hot cocoa cups,’ Lynsi told the Christian Post in 2019. ‘It’s a family business and will always be, and [the religious proverbs on the packaging are] a family touch.’

For many religious business owners out there, In-N-Out provides an unexpected case study in how to merge religion into your brand without alienating anyone. So, how did it do it? 

‘One of the ways is that you start with having a very strong brand that was built back when religiosity was not that big of a deal,’ strategy consultant Vaughn says. ‘Location also matters. If you’ve got a brand that’s established in what is generally thought of as a liberal part of the country, people cut you some slack.’

While true to its beliefs, In-N-Out wasn’t founded as a means to communicate a religious message, but rather acted on those beliefs through philanthropy and dedication to service. How those beliefs manifested through the company was more important to its growth than the outward expression of them. 

‘It’s the brand’s subtle way of being able to signal that it’s holding true to its beliefs,’ says Andrea Hernández, who runs Snaxshot, a trend-forecasting company that reports on the food and drink industry. ‘Sometimes we see companies and corporations as more trustworthy than religious institutions, but brands are becoming this sort of cult religious experience. People gravitate towards that.’ 

‘When you treat someone as if they’re an other, rather than someone that is part of your group, then things like religion become divisive,’ adds Vaughn. ‘On the other hand, if you have a crazy uncle who you love but who happens to be a fundamentalist Christian, then his Christianity is a fact, but it is not divisive.’

He compares In-N-Out’s following to that of Apple, and points out how, in each case, creating a superior product allows the brand leeway to do things that might not otherwise be possible. ‘If Apple’s products were not really well made, we wouldn’t tolerate the fact that they are incredibly expensive and hard to repair. You wouldn’t stand for any of that if the product wasn’t good. It’s almost axiomatic that you are willing to pay more or put up with more if what you’re getting in return is worth it.’ 

But religion isn’t the only secret to In-N-Out’s success – it’s just one of many factors. As brand consultant Derrick Daye, who looks at how religion is used in branding, says: ‘Religion isn’t enough to take a brand and keep it growing, but it can be an important element.’

This article was first published in Courier issue 41, June/July 2021. To purchase the issue or become a subscriber, head to our webshop.

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