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Restaurant operators strive to create an environment that pleases the senses – taste, sight, smell. What some may overlook, however, is sound.
Background music is common in the restaurant industry. But many brands are now veering from homogeneous, elevator-type tunes in favor of customized playlists meant to optimize the brand, as well as customer and staff experiences.
David Rahn, president of Custom Channels, and Bradley Newberger, founder of Ambiance Radio, have both seen a big uptick in restaurant music customization.
"There is a growing number of brand managers and concept developers taking a hard look at what music they're playing and making it a part of the overall theme and environment. Music is becoming part of the brand; it's become more than just something playing in the background," Rahn said.
Dairy Queen embraced this idea about a year ago when it tapped Trusonic Inc. to provide its in-store music with location-specific playlists.
"It's an important concept for our system. The goal is to provide a relaxing and fun environment to enjoy our products," said Chris Schwanz, national accounts program manager for American Dairy Queen Corp.
Evaluating your playlists
Music has enough power to set the tone for an entire dining experience, Newberger said.
"If a restaurant was dirty, if the food was bad or smelled bad, you probably wouldn't go back. The same applies to music. It's a mood driver. Even if the food was right, if the music wasn't right or too loud, the customer will remember," he said.
To avoid creating unpleasant auditory experiences, Rahn suggests undergoing a "playlist evaluation," offering such tips as:
Don't forget about the staff
It's also important to diversity the playlists. For example, Ambiance Radio's system changes up the songs every hour of every day for every location. If the playlist never changes, it may not matter much to a customer who is in and out within a half hour, but it will matter to employees working 8-hour shifts.
"When employees are happier, they do better things and they treat your customers better. Music is something that can really help with employee satisfaction," Newberger said.
This philosophy is the reason the former restaurant operator created Ambiance Radio in the first place.
"Everyday at 2 p.m., I knew exactly what song was going to play. It drove us all crazy. If you talk to any employee in any service area and the music is repetitive, it will affect their morale and attitudes," he said.
Music moves into the foreground
The right playlist can also be used to boost brands beyond restaurant walls. Industry experts agree that Starbucks is the perfect example a brand that of incorporates music into its DNA.
In 2006, Starbucks really proved its music credibility when it partnered with Apple to collaborate on selling music. A year later, the coffee chain began selling digital downloads through iTunes, something it continues today. The retail aspect complements the in-store music that has always existed at the chain. According to Starbucks' website, music is what makes a great coffeehouse: "We're just as passionate about music as we are about coffee. That's why we handpick all the tunes you hear in our stores."
Starbucks is a big reason in-store music has moved from the background to the foreground, and similitude has made way for variety.
"Starbucks was definitely a leader in this trend. They took a real approach of making music a part of the entire brand experience. And it is a good way to keep their brand contemporary. Others – like Chipotle and Qdoba – have caught on and are doing the same," Rahn said.
In fact, Chipotle hosted its first "Cultivate Chicago" festival last weekend to "celebrate food, music and ideas." Founder Steve Ells said the festival is a celebration of the things Chipotle stands for.
Appropriate for all segments
The fast casual segment has embraced the concept of brand soundtracking, but the concept is applicable across the industry, including drive-thru-heavy QSR.
"There is a lot of potential for QSR, especially as we're seeing more effort put into interiors and creating comfortable environments by McDonald's and other brands," said Darren Tristano, executive vice president at research firm Technomic. "Maybe those flatscreen TVs are important to add, but I think the music will impact the customer more and, importantly, have a positive impact on the staff."
Tristano said one of the best examples of a brand embracing the musical experience is Yard House, a full-service chain based out of Southern California. Its website includes a music request page, where customers can ask that specific songs be incorporated at specific locations.
"By getting that direct reinforcement from the customer, Yard House is getting the most out of its ambience," Tristano said. "The model is ideal. It's not as important to have the right music as it is not to have the wrong music, and they know exactly what their customers are looking for."
Getting the customer to return
Restaurants that use Internet streaming providers such as Trusonic or Custom Channels, or Ambiance Radio, which delivers feeds based on data pulled from proprietary software, are paying to offer music that has been researched specifically to fit a brand, according to Rahn.
"We'll do a lot of research and ask a lot of questions about the brand, and what their demographics look like at different times of the day. And we're able to reshuffle and continuously update songs based on that research. There is a science, a psychology behind this," Rahn said.
And, although difficult to quantify, Tristano believes that finding the right musical personality can subtly boost a brand and maybe even its bottom line.
"It's not going to be an obvious ROI, but it's a key factor in a customer's intent to return," he said. "You can destroy that intent with the wrong music."
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