Commentary: Visual content tops 2013 restaurant marketing trends

By Linda Duke

Following the election for U.S. President and negative news from Hurricane Sandy to the shootings at Sandy Hook Elementary School, the outlook resembles weather with "partly cloudy skies and a chance of rain" for restaurant marketers. Although some economic indicators such as increasing home sales might be sunny, the economy overall is in a bit of a standstill, waiting for the storm to pass.

Not to be superstitious, but isn't the number 13 unlucky? There's never a 13th floor at hotels (in the United States at least) and 13 is often considered to be bad luck. So, what does this coming year, 2013, hold? More importantly, how will the economic outlook affect consumers' purchasing behaviors? What restaurant marketing trends are starting to make headway? What are the Sunny Days ahead going to bring and how can restaurant marketers take advantage of those? Read on:

Restaurant brands will get increasingly visual. Restaurant brands are rethinking the opportunity for visual engagement, merchandising and visual content marketing. It's an opportunity to reimagine how to tell a brand story in a visual way, but more importantly how to solicit the same level of involvement in brand story-telling from consumers.

Visuals, such as photos and video, cross cultural barriers and are instantly relatable. It is thinking about words being made into visual communications such as Digital Menu Boards, which are increasingly being incorporated into many restaurant locations. Digital menu boards and ordering kiosks will continue to increase and be incorporated into more brands due to their appeal and favored use by younger consumers. (BoudinSF recently opened a location in Sunnyvale, Calif., with new digital menu boards. Check it out below.)

Journey Content. When a restaurant marketer develops a promotion it involves a message and typically a call to action. That "message" is content, and today content is king. When meaningful content is developed for brands it must be thought of as "journey content" since guests will often post it, share it, comment on it and give it additional life. The new trend is to develop a great piece of content and know that is just the beginning of the journey for that content. Audiences, online communities and your guests will be recognized as contributors to your brand and co-creators of your messages.

Making a Difference. If your brand isn't known for "making a difference" maybe you need to think about how it can. With nine out of 10 consumers choosing those brands that do community service or contribute to meaningful nonprofit organizations, it's hard to ignore. Many restaurant operators contribute to local teams and schools, but more and more are finding organizations that can not only help them spread the word but also help them make a difference. For a recent restaurant grand opening, guests were encouraged to donate a non-perishable food item in exchange for a free meal. More than 500 guests attended and more than 600 pounds of food was collected. The visual of the overflowing cans of donations made the evening news and garnered press coverage. The media buzz created an overwhelming response from the local community with more donations coming in for the entire first month of business. The restaurant brand contributed the highest grand opening sales in the 30-plus-year history of the company to the nonprofit activities.

For Crisis Sake. Ask a restaurant CEO what keeps them up at night and more than half will answer "crisis." No longer can restaurant marketers leave crisis to be handled by the top brass or HR person, it affects the entire brand. With most of the "Ten top PR Crisis' of 2012" being about foodservice, it is imperative for brands to develop and have on hand a crisis plan. With increased cyber-criminal activity, companies that once protected the car industry of credit card theft and data breaches, such as ANX, are now seeing increased breaches of level 4 merchants, that is restaurant brands and their franchised locations, across the U.S. Unfortunately the U.S. swipe card method of taking credit card payments opens us up to cyber theft. Numerous brands have been affected by cyber criminals and have either spent millions to correct the damage or have gone out of business. More brand leaders will realize crisis can impact the entire brand and will plan accordingly.

Blitz 'em! In American football or Canadian football, a blitz is when additional players are sent to "rush the quarterback" — that is, try to tackle the quarterback or disrupt his pass attempt. The term is borrowed from the Blitzkrieg, the German strategy of "Lightning War" employed during World War II. Like the Blitzkrieg, the blitz is a concentration of force at high speed to force a breakthrough and proceed without regard to the flanks. So, for restaurant marketers it's time to "blitz" the competition. With the prolonged economic challenges and the outlook still murky, many restaurant brands are easy targets to Blitz. Many who have relied on coupons, Groupons, discounts and two for $20 deals over the past couple of years, are now realizing this is not a long-term strategy. Consumers want more than discounts today. They want great customer service, added value and increased experiences. Perhaps your competitor hasn't changed with the times? Maybe they can easily get blitzed with extra marketing efforts. 

Re-thinking Traditional Tactics. Creative communicators are rethinking their traditional marketing tactics. Mass Markets are the thing of the '60s, and firms should no longer approach the old strategy of targeting broad market segments and using mass media to communicate its product. Marketers should now take advantage of the advanced- communication technologies that give us direct interaction with customers. They should conduct data collection and mining about potential customers to give them exactly the kind of product or service they want.

Today, smart restaurant marketers focus on building relationships. Traditional marketing in the past was just aiming to push products or services, while the new customer-cultivating marketing aims at serving customers and customer segments. Understanding one's target market is always essential, and now there are multiple channels to communicate to those targets. Marketers who aren't rethinking their marketing and integrating traditional tactics with new methods, such as social media and content development for multiple uses, and getting customers interacting with their brand, will be left in the dark ages.

Newsmakers—Lights • Camera • Action! Planning and making the news about your restaurant brand is better than letting the stories get misinterpreted when the lights, camera and action hit without a plan. Celebrating milestones and news-making opportunities should be seriously considered by every restaurant marketer for next year's strategies and beyond. Opening a new restaurant in the coming year? You only get to open once so make it count. Creating newsworthy activities with planned communications and outreach can garner lots of buzz and publicity for any restaurant brand. In the coming year expect to see more planning news-making events for restaurant brands.

 

Buzz Equity. How does one build a brand that inspires generations? Can one plan for buzz? Can one create it with big ideas that create momentum? The answer is yes, and more and more brands are trying to understand what makes and builds buzz equity today. Buzz equity is built with positive association, excitement and anticipation about your product or service. Think Apple and the buzz equity it builds from product launch to product launch. And for some companies, it is important to understand the buzz surrounding a product before committing to the market.

Positive "buzz" is often a goal of viral marketing, public relations and of advertising on Web 2.0 media. The term refers both to the execution of the marketing technique, and the resulting goodwill that is created. Examples of products with strong marketing buzz upon introduction were Harry Potter, the Volkswagen New Beetle, Pokémon, Beanie Babies, and the Blair Witch Project. The term "buzz marketing" originally referred to oral communication, but in the age of Web 2.0, social media, such as Facebook and Twitter, are also being used to create marketing buzz.

Buzz marketing works because individuals are easier to trust than organizations that may be perceived to have vested interests in promoting their products and/or services. For restaurant marketers that means creating brand ambassadors or content co-creators to help build your buzz both online and offline.

Food Forward—Growing, Making & Eating. Never before has food been looked at as finely as it is today. Consumers want to understand where their food comes from, and farm-to-table is still a very popular trend. However, we will see this "food forward" trend continue to give consumers more information about where our food comes from and the impact it has on our planet, our country, our bodies and souls.

Food Forward opens the door into a new world of possibility, where pioneers and visionaries are creating viable alternatives to the pressing social and environmental impacts of our industrial food system. Across the country, farmers, chefs, fishermen, teachers, scientists and entrepreneurs are creating inspired but practical solutions that are nourishing us and the planet. Consumers want to get involved, and food forward provides many marketing opportunities to nourish this growing trend.

Brands of all sizes are looking at food forward trends including growing food, i.e. roof top and community gardens and heirloom fruit and vegetable planting. Making food will continue in popularity with consumers getting more involved with more hands-on food demonstrations and making their own meals. Some guests are joining local chefs, jarring their pickles and fruits right along with curing meats, baking bread and making sausages. The growing and making wouldn't be complete without eating, and sharing food with guests that have helped plant the garden and reap the rewards is the most food forward trend coming.

Locally Relevant. Ever heard that most of your restaurant guests come from the 3 to 5 mile radius surrounding your restaurant? This statistic has NOT changed over the years. Marketers must realize each 3-mile radius is different, and typically every restaurant is different (sometimes signs or décor vary due to cities and size, respectively), and it becomes more and more important to focus on being locally relevant. Examples of locally relevant include partnering with the local groups and offering them a place to host their after rehearsal or after practice dinners. For instance, a local theater group is performing the musical Grease, and a local restaurant invites them to host a '50s-themed fundraiser, (a buffet for a price), and monies are donated to the theater group that performs several numbers from the popular musical, while attendees enjoy their food and entertainment. Does your franchisee or general manager know the top employers in the 3 to 5 mile radius to target for catering? Does each of your locations have a connection with all the area nonprofits? Sports teams and groups? If not, it's time to look local and become locally relevant before some other restaurant brand does and you get blitzed!

Linda Duke is chief executive officer of Duke Marketing, LLC, a California-based, full-service marketing firm specializing in multi-location and franchise organizations.

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