A number of years ago, restaurant chains stopped being chains and became brands. Chain is so uninviting, fenced out and smacks of bigness not closeness. People don't want to be chained to a chain, they want to identify and be enamored with a brand. Think Tiffany, Reese's Peanut Butter Cups, Cincinnati Reds ... These are brands consumers can engage and love.
So we changed; now we are brands.
The term "brand" comes from the Old West tradition of pressing molten hot metal on the side of a steer or a horse so a rancher could identify their livestock and discourage poaching. The thing about THOSE brands was it was mighty hard to change them; consumers can change restaurant brands easily.
Fast Company had a recent story about brand equity with an interesting observation. The survey, which talked to 50,000 consumers, "found that only 20 percent of the brands they interact with have a positive impact on their lives, and ... that 70 percent of brands could disappear entirely without them noticing."
Hardly the stuff of the old metal poker.
There are 73,000 pizzeria locations in the U.S. Each of them a brand, from Tony's on Main Street to Pizza Hut's store #7,794. Each location has a local reputation even apart from the headquarters' brand. I know many of you, have been in your shops, sold you ingredients or marketing strategies and I know how hard you work to identify and serve customers ... to build your brand.
So where is the disconnect? How can "brands" have such a low impact on consumers?
Hint, it is more than the pizza and it is more than the price or the promotion. Low prices and promotions only feed the cynicism that creates the disconnect. Engagement comes with a high cost and, according to the same Fast Company survey, "more than half (51 percent) of consumers want to reward responsible companies by shopping there; 53 percent would pay a 10 percent premium for products from a responsible company."
Does our industry believe that? Do you think it? The pizza community is so focused on coupons, promotions and LTO's that we drive consumers to look for more for less at ever-cheaper prices. What has it achieved? Terrible margins and a race every day to beat the store down the street.
I do much of the grocery shopping in my household and spend the bulk of our weekly budget at Trader Joe's. Why? They offer high quality at prices that seem valuable. They NEVER put anything on sale. I'll bet Trader Joe's is one of the brands in the 20 percent that engage consumers and have impact on their lives.
As you plan for 2012, think about your brand, what does it stand for? Do you engage your customers? Do you have a positive impact on their lives? Does your brand demonstrate responsibility? If you disappeared, would they care? The survey said consumers would pay more for that experience. I say, sell it to them!
Ed Zimmerman is a pizza industry veteran and President of The Food Connector. His almost four decades of foodservice experience includes food manufacturing and distribution leadership, food industry technology, marketing services and restaurant and grocery operations management.