Five years ago, officials from Uno Chicago Grill thought they had their key customer pegged.
That customer, they thought, was a middle-class male who liked to hang out at the bar and eat pizza. But after conducting demographic research, officials realized they were missing the mark.
"Truth be told, our customer base was more than 60 percent female, well educated and eating more than pizza," said Jamie Strobino, vice president of new concepts at Uno Restaurant Holdings, the parent company of Uno Chicago Grill. "But if you looked at our menu five years ago, we were going right down that path (of thinking the main customer was a middle-class male), and if we had kept down that path we would be in trouble right now."
Uno conducted the research as part of an effort to revitalize the brand, which just passed its 65th birthday. The challenge the company faced, he said, was to make customers understand that Uno was not only a place for deep-dish pizza, but it also served steaks and salads, offered a gluten-free crust and had menu-information kiosks in its restaurants.
Over the past several years, the company has revamped both its menu and the design of its restaurants. Uno's revitalization efforts led in part to the company being named to the top spot on Prevention magazine's "America's Healthiest Chains" list. "We were named the No. 1 Healthiest Chain in America because we spent time focusing on great food that was nutritious and tasted great," he said. "We took a 65-year-old brand and made it relevant again."
Strobino described Uno's revitalization process and shared tips for operators of mature brands at the recent Pizza Executive Summit, held June 8-9 in Chicago. Here's what he had to say:
Identify and understand your segment
Although Uno operates more than 200 full-service restaurants in the United States and abroad, officials realized they had to rethink the concept if the company was to continue to expand.
One of the most critical steps operators need to take, Strobino said, is to take a hard, honest, look at their operation, especially if they are struggling.
"Look at your concept. Is it current? Is it connecting with the guests? Look at your design. You have to constantly evolve or you will die," he said. "Look at your customers. Are they who you think they are? Look at your systems. Are they helping you get where you want to go?"
Constantly work on your product
Operators need to regularly tweak their menus, Strobino said. The toughest part is to be able to let go of some older things, but those can be brought back as occasional specials.
"We've always got a few guests who loved a certain item and complain when you take it off the menu," he said. "I'm always amazed at how many people loved a certain item but never bought it."
Evaluate your building design
Building a new restaurant presents a tremendous opportunity to incorporate environmentally friendly design features at little or no additional cost, Strobino said. "Take flooring, for example," he said. "You can do recycled vinyl that looks exactly like wood and is less expensive than other types of flooring. Not only can you save money when you build out, you have a story to tell your guests."
Spend some money on research
Whenever Uno makes a menu change, the company sends invitations to members of its "Insider's Club" frequent guest program. Members are asked to come in, rate the new items and offer their opinion.
"You can also do a simple form and keep some in the office and put it on the table for the guest to fill out," he said. "They love to do it."
External focus groups are a good way to find out what your customers think about you without you having to identify who you are, Strobino said.
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"Long-standing brands suffer from what I call the "Paradox of Familiarity" - they are so familiar to customers that any new information presented in an ad or marketing campaign often goes unnoticed because the consumer perceives they already know everything there is to know about the brand. Everyone knows where they are, but no one pays attention to their ads because they blend into the scenery."
- Jim Seybert, consultant and author of Leadership RE:Vision
Move forward by looking back
"Mature brands can actually give themselves a fresh new look by actually using their vintage appeal. Studies show that using vintage or retro visual cues - whether it's in packaging, the logo or the retail space - actually appeal to Generation X and Y consumers. Just don't go overboard with the vintage paraphernalia, because then you'll just end up seeming chaotic, corny and overwhelming. Adding modern touches will help balance the brand out, while still remaining true to its historic roots."
- Jessica Carlson, director of brand discovery and engagement at the Phoenix-based branding firm the Darkly Agency.
"We've found over the years that brands that neglect their legacy and heritage and try to be everything to everybody go astray. Often with larger companies, both independently held and public, high executive turnover and independents being "so close" to the brand, it's hard to get them to see how the brand needs to "go back" to its roots."