Commentary: Social media: Brand aid … or brand illusion?

A few weeks ago, I had the privilege of attending a major social media conference. Naturally I saw it as a great opportunity to pick up new nuggets of wisdom from first-rate brains. And in this I definitely was not disappointed. Some of the most notable figures in the social media industry presented their thoughts on best practices for adding their sites and services to the restaurant marketing mix.

I also saw the conference as a chance to step away from the incessant everyday chatter about the social media phenomenon and engage in a deliberate and measured assessment of how and when social media might fit seamlessly into our restaurant clients' overall media mix and brand strategy. I wasn't disappointed on this score, either.

It certainly does seem that it's time to reassess social media. Over the past few years, the noise from and about it has grown louder and more confused, partly amped up by the proliferation of networking sites. A ripple that began as MySpace and Twitter, FourSquare and Facebook is now an engulfing tide of networking sites from the generic (Facebook) to the highly specific (the Christian site, Amen Me).

The social media rush has reached such a fever pitch that Wall Street is raising questions about the real worth of players such as LinkedIn, Facebook and Twitter. A July 8 article in the New York Times reported that since going public at $122 per share, LinkedIn stock sunk to a low of about half that and now sits at $99.70, a price that analysts say could be still be inflated by up to 56 percent.

This is reminiscent enough of the first Internet bubble of 2001 to make one wonder whether social networking represents the next cautionary tale of "irrational exuberance," which makes this a good time for brands to think about how they're getting into social media and what they expect to get out of it.

Social media have certainly contributed to the further fragmentation of the media, making it more challenging than ever for brands to reach buyers. One conference presenter noted that in 1965, it took just three airings of a TV spot to reach 80 percent of a target audience. Today, it takes 100 placements to make that connection. Increasingly niched audiences have radically increased the importance of thoughtful brand representation.

What's more, restaurant operators must keep in mind the growing number of device formats available to consumers and consider how their existing and potential customer base might seek, use and share information about their brand using social media outlets on wireless devices.

Currently some 93 percent of Americans have mobile phones, and 43 percent of them use their phones to search for restaurants and bars. As the number of smartphones in users' hands grows (from around 38 percent now to an estimated 90 percent by 2014), so will the search numbers.

An increasing number of consumers also will be carrying wireless tablets and laptops, making mobile apps available to them as well as traditional and mobile web sites. Restaurants must sort through options and features and learn how to use them to advantage.

Finally, restaurant brands must consider how social media has changed the thinking and expectations of customers, and how it has brought about (or at least contributed to) a shift in purchasing demographics. As one conference presenter remarked, social media has changed the way consumers perceive a brand.

It used to be a brand telling consumers what it represented; now the shoe is on the other foot — it is consumers who are defining brands for themselves and others. They're basing their characterizations not on a rundown of brand attributes but on their own experience as users, and sharing those ideas with others in their network. Sometimes there's overlap in the messages, but not always. And here, social media can offer restaurant chains valuable insights that contribute to understanding and self-critique.

All of this is far too much to cover in a single blog. So I'll be covering these topics in several blogs in coming weeks, sharing thoughts on the new media, mobility and devices, market demographics and branding mentality. So keep reading, contribute your own thoughts and questions and enjoy the "deliberate and measured" assessment of social media's role in a new age of branding.

Lori Walderich is chief creative officer at IdeaStudio, a chain restaurant marketing and promotions firm. Her company helps restaurant clients align their branding and implement strategic marketing plans to achieve consistent, sustainable growth.

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