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Would you eat bacon-flavored sundae? How about a bacon and cheese "sandwich" between two pieces of fried chicken instead of bread?

The quick-serve restaurant (QSR) landscape has been fascinating to watch in the past year as many companies have introduced quirky menu items. We've seen everything from McDonald's McLobster to Burger King's Bacon Sundae. Regardless of how you feel about them, everyone on social media is talking about these weird fast-food items.

Despite the high cost of bringing new menu items to fruition, companies are unlikely to abandon this never-ending quest to out-do each other. After all, weird products get headlines - and sometimes, they turn profitable. But while companies do their best to reduce the time spent in the research pipeline and minimize product failure, there still have been some interesting fails like Burger King's French Fry Burger.

In some respects, these new products go through similar research and development pipelines as tech gadgets and smartphones. In fact, just like most companies, QSR brands depend highly on flashy new products to keep customers interested. That's why unusual fast-food items provide great business and marketing lessons that all companies can learn from when launching unconventional offerings.

Whether your company is competing in the QSR space or another industry, here are a few things to keep in mind before you develop and introduce your next quirky product.

1. Get ideas directly from customers.

With a steady list of new concoctions to test, QSR companies need to move quickly. Some products are based on time-sensitive trends. First-move advantage can be important.

To get ideas faster, companies need to harness customers' ideas quicker and more effectively. Using a co-creation tool, companies don't need to rely on their R&D team alone to generate new-product ideas.

If you're trying to think of new offerings, you should engage a nice mix of creative and evaluative customers. That type of co-creation can help you get ideas you may not have thought of yet.

2. Involve customers in the testing of various concepts.

When it comes to quirky products, testing rigorously is a must. And you have to look outside your own four walls to get an objective perspective.

New product ideas should be tested, refined and tested again. Using other early-stage screening application, companies can do careful testing while saving valuable cost and time. Before moving on to developing the product, tap into your customer community's insight to weed out bad ideas and flesh out promising concepts.

3. Test your marketing materials.

The success of quirky products depends heavily on clever marketing. For instance, KFC's fried chicken corsage was marketed just in time for the prom season and included tongue-in-cheek YouTube videos.

To make sure your marketing tactics make sense, engage your target audience early. If you have an online community of customers, show them initial advertising concepts. Marketing to a group like the Millennials requires truly knowing their values and their habits, so building an ongoing relationship with them can help elevate the language, tone and theme you use in your marketing efforts.

4. Engage your other stakeholders.

Last year, author and journalist Peter Nowak named Pretzel Bacon Cheeseburger, a Wendy's product, as the best fast-food innovation of the year. Is that twisted or what?

Innovation is great, but it alone won't result to good sales - especially in the QSR business where speed is paramount. Wendy's chief executive Emil Brolick explained that the pretzel burger was relatively difficult to make and slowed down the chain's kitchens. Still, with its big success, the Pretzel Bacon Cheeseburger will likely find its way back onto menus in 2014.

This logistical issue highlights the importance of engaging key stakeholders in addition to your customers. In the case of Wendy's, they also have to think about franchise owners and frontline crew to find out potential issues with their quirky products. These groups can provide valuable input as Wendy's mulls over moving a limited-time offer into a standard menu item.

Regardless of your industry, an insight community of stakeholders can help you understand the operational side of your new products. By engaging your stakeholders on a regular basis, you'll have better information when accessing the success of new products.

Quirky menu items can reinvigorate sales by bringing PR buzz to the company while satisfying customers' desire to try something new. But as some QSR companies demonstrate, doing so requires extensive customer insight to make sure that your products are tastefully weird, not just plain weird.

Photo credit: Sam Howzit (via Flickr)

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