Be my 'bBff': Marketing guru says best brands 'participate' in diners' lives

| by S.A. Whitehead
Be my 'bBff': Marketing guru says best brands 'participate' in diners' lives

Whether you yourself, are in that under-40 group or you are simply close to anyone of that age, you've likely heard the term, "bff," for the words, "best friends forever." It's a semi-nouveau label for that often-experienced bond between "best" friends. But in the restaurant business, you might say "bBff" is a more accurate label for the endgame of every chain's attempts to morph customers into something more like "best brand friends forever." That process and all its mysteries is the subject of a book due out this September on this increasingly important operational need.

The book, The Participation Game: How the Top 100 Brands Build Loyalty in a Skeptical World, is the work of longtime marketing guru, Norty Cohen, of the St. Louis ad agency behind the annual Moosylvania Top 100 Brands List. 

In his book, Cohen makes the argument that today's brand winners are those that successfully build what boils down to fairly intimate relationships with customers, particularly online. In other words, great brands actually work a huge share of their engagement magic completely outside of the dining experience itself. 

Cohen calls this the "participation game" and he argues that it's central to converting those "luke-warm" or even "cold" customers into what he calls "super-loyal" fans of the brand.

Cohen, who has worked with many restaurant brands, such as Hungry Howies Pizza, discusses how brands can work a little super-loyal fan magic. 

That subject — participation and building super-loyal fans — is where we started off in our recent interview with Cohen on how restaurant brands can play this "game" to win.  

Q: Can you first define what you mean by "participation" in the context of building restaurant brand loyalty?
Our point of view is based on 5,000 consumer surveys over five years — all based on consumer's favorite brands. We were most interested in how and why consumers adopt brands and probed specifically about what their favorite brands did to earn that status.

Overall, the context of experience is correct, but we would define it as an intuitive connection. The brand or company has done a fair amount of work to show that they are listening and responsive. This begins to break down the wall between service provider and trusted friend.

The good news for restaurants is that when we isolate millennial consumers' top brands ... quick service concepts are on that list based on top-of-mind awareness and a good relationship with the consumer. Consumers remember and talk about even the slightest effort by marketers to make their experience more personal. And that's where experience takes over.  

At one point, we asked 1,000 consumers if they ever had a "truly great two-way conversation" with a brand and several restaurant concepts were mentioned. They remembered getting free drink refills, getting retweeted, just basic personal touches that were long appreciated. 

"When we look at the brands that have loyal consumers, we ask (customers) what they expect from those brands they love. They want to be the first to know about what's next." 


Q: So do you have examples of brands that do this well?
On the restaurant side, Wendy's has done a great job of having a real dialogue with consumers. The phenomenon they had with "Nuggets for Carter" showed how connected they are. (Editor's note: This refers to a 16-year-old Wendy's chicken nuggets fan who dared Wendy's on Twitter to tell him how many retweets he needed to get for the chain's Twitter page to earn free nuggets for a year.

A lot of restaurant chains would have convened a meeting to decide how many re-tweets would equal free chicken nuggets for a year. Their community manager jumped in within seconds and said, "18 million."  And the free media turned on. 

Q:  That example has a clear marketing angle, but you also talk about "partnering" with consumers to build loyalty, which I understand is less transparent in its promotional goals, correct? 
If you look at (grocery chain) Wegman's, they have this dedicated fan base who believe in everything they do.  Just check out the style of dialogue they have with their consumers on their social pages. It's like watching friends share stories.  There's no marketing. Just sharing.

Then take a look at what happened with Cracker Barrel and (this initial Facebook post last March, known as "Brad's wife.") The internet turned on Cracker Barrel and made a meme out of a comment (made on the brand's Facebook page), "I can't believe you fired my wife on my birthday. - signed Brad."  

Everything they've posted since has been mocked with "Too bad Brad's wife can't enjoy the new apple pie" or whatever (subject is being mentioned in the social media feed). We would contend that this would never have happened to Wegmans. It's a feeling, not a tactic and it takes time to cultivate.

Q: You have said that "gimmicks" around this idea are "poisoning marketers" and you've put in a call for true creativity around this "participation game." What does that mean?
A:When we look at the brands that have loyal consumers, we ask (customers) what they expect from those brands they love. They (say they) want to be the first to know about what's next. They want a little insider knowledge. Look at In and Out Burger: The secret menu is a "thing."

You also have to consider that your restaurant's image overall is strong enough that consumers would happily wear your brand or put your sticker on their laptop.  

Get there first, then dial it up. Ultimately, they are marketers in their own right - marketing themselves.  So they can easily curate out any promotions or offers that don't ring true. ... However you serve it up, do it with style. ... You can't go wrong with asking people what they think. Just consider a friend you bump into randomly or a business associate who calls every now and then. You ask about their family.  You ask about their business. You look them in the eye.  

It's the same thing if you ran into someone and they never once asked you anything. You would think, "What a jerk." You can't go wrong if you are genuinely interested.   

Q: How would you suggest restaurant leaders begin this type of endeavor to successfully play "the participation game"? 
Find your loyalists and encourage them to participate in your brand. Have them pick your next special (or) help decide what beers you want on tap. Make it their place.  

Keep asking questions and make the experience personal. And deliver a product they are truly happy about.

When we asked consumers if they are loyal or super loyal to a favorite brand, nearly three-quarters (of respondants) said, "Yes."  So getting super fans behind you is the key.  

Feature photo:

Topics: Business Strategy and Profitability, Customer Service / Experience, Loyalty Programs, Marketing, Marketing / Branding / Promotion

S.A. Whitehead

Award-winning veteran print and broadcast journalist, Shelly Whitehead, has spent most of the last 30 years reporting for TV and newspapers, including the former Kentucky and Cincinnati Post and a number of network news affiliates nationally. She brings her cumulative experience as a multimedia storyteller and video producer to the web-based pages of and after a lifelong “love affair” with reporting the stories behind the businesses that make our world go ‘round. Ms. Whitehead is driven to find and share news of the many professional passions people take to work with them every day in the pizza and quick-service restaurant industry. She is particularly interested in the growing role of sustainable agriculture and nutrition in food service worldwide and is always ready to move on great story ideas and news tips.

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