Brands are finding new ways beyond ad campaigns to connect with consumers by positioning themselves at the forefront of cultural and tech trends. Furniture giant Ikea launched Space10, its internal innovation team, at the end of 2015 and Unilever collaborated with startups through the Unilever Foundry, which piloted in 2014. More recently, fast-food companies such as KFC, Domino’s and Burger King have upped their presence in the testing of product prototypes and the trialing of new ways to interact with consumers.

The new branded currency

Brands are exploring the possibilities of blockchain as a seamless and safe way to make digital transactions. Last month KFC Canada released the Bitcoin Bucket. Sales were tracked live on Facebook and the promotion sold out almost immediately. In August 2017, Burger King Russia launched the WhopperCoin, a “blockchain loyalty program.” Customers receive a virtual WhopperCoin with every Whopper they purchase and these can be traded or cashed in for burgers.

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Burger King Whoppercoin
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KFC Bitcoin Bucket

Retailers are experimenting with face-based payments to attract “young, tech savvy consumers who are keen to embrace new tastes and innovations,” Joey Wat, Yum China’s president, told Reuters.

In September 2017, Alibaba released its Smile to Pay facial recognition technology at KFC China, the first physical store to use face-based payments. CaliBurger brought the concept to America the following December using NEC’s NeoFace facial recognition technology. The screen in the self-order kiosk recognizes customers, pulls up their loyalty account and order preferences, and lets them pay by smiling.

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Alipay's facial recognition tech at KFC China
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Caliburger's facial payments

Drone delivery

Drone delivery adoption is growing among retailers and consumers. Amazon, 7-Eleven and Google have all piloted autonomous drone deliveries, aiming to eventually make the service commercial. For two days in January 2018, KFC India offered the KFO (Kentucky Flying Object)—a strictly limited number of lucky customers in selected cities received their chicken wings in a box that could be reassembled as a drone.

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Kentucky Flying Object
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Domino’s has been testing pizza delivery drones and rovers since November 2016 in New Zealand, Germany, and the Netherlands. “We believe drone delivery will be an essential component of our pizza deliveries,” said Don Meij, Domino’s Group CEO and managing director, when the service was first trialed.

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Domino's pizza delivery droid

Self-driving cars

Pizza brands are partnering with car companies to prepare for our automated future. At CES 2018, Pizza Hut and Toyota put the concept into action with an autonomous delivery truck that could one day even contain pizza ovens.

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Ford and Domino's self-driving cars
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Toyota e-Palette with Pizza Hut at CES

In August 2017, Domino’s US launched a research study with Ford Motor Company to discover how consumers would respond to pizza delivery from a self-driving car. “We’ve been watching the development of self-driving vehicles with great interest as we believe transportation is undergoing fundamental, dramatic change,” said Patrick Doyle, Domino’s president and CEO.

Fast (food) fashion

Fast-food companies are encroaching on the fashion industry in a bid to become lifestyle brands. Taco Bell brought its fast-casual attitude to fast fashion, partnering with Forever 21 in October 2017 on a clothing line of hoodies, shirts, and sauce-themed bodysuits. In the same month, Pizza Hut created a parka out of its delivery material, with a triangular pocket wittily suggesting wearers might like to carry a slice with them at all times.

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Taco Bell and Forever 21 clothing line

Companies are also releasing branded accessories. In July 2017, KFC launched KFC Limited, a line of chicken-themed merchandise from socks to Colonel Sanders’ string tie. For the holidays, the collection was updated with wrapping paper and gravy mugs. McDonald’s followed suit by launching a lifestyle collection with UberEats, giving away one free item per UberEats order to randomly selected customers on July 26, 2017.

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KFC Limited holiday line

Fast-food retailers are gaining consumer attention and loyalty by adopting creative, innovative projects. The limited-edition releases demonstrate that fast innovation is a great tool for market research, allowing brands to test consumer response to better understand their audience.

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