Restaurant marketers: Fear of failure kills creativity

| by Alicia Kelso
Restaurant marketers: Fear of failure kills creativity

The fast pace and fierce competition makes the restaurant industry one of the toughest for marketers to earn their stripes. They’re tasked with developing a strategy, defining a brand purpose, identifying internal and external audiences and determining the best ways to share their brand story.

As Raising Cane’s CMO Clay Dover explains, the brand is the art and the marketing is the science. Dover was joined by fellow marketers Stacey Kane of AmRest, Rachel Phillips-Luther from Zoes Kitchen, and Chris Tomasso from First Watch, at the National Restaurant Association Show last week in Chicago, to discuss the best strategies to consider for brand evolution.

Begin with an end in mind

For starters, it’s important to identify your goals; begin with an end in mind.

“It’s easy to understand where you need to get to. But then the busier you get, you start to lose sight of the end. It’s important to reset all the time,” Tomasso said.

With an end in mind, it’s easier to measure failures and successes. It’s also important to make sure the rest of the team is on board with your plan.

“Marketing people assume their job is to market to the guest and they forget they have to market to their people. Their team is the most critical piece in the marketing puzzle. To have them buying into your goals is how you’re going to be successful. It’s not always fun or pretty, but it’s critical,” Phillips-Luther said.

Zoes has an employee dedicated to “understanding the gap” and her job is to market to internal team members. Kane added that AmRest’s 20,000 employees are encouraged to participate, and the company is currently developing a tool to push information to those employees about marketing initiatives.

“If everything is passed through a franchisee, but not the crew-level employee, the crew-level employee isn’t going to get excited. We call it ‘elective participation,’ and ask them to use a hashtag, for example, if they’re using their social media channels. We ask them to use them, instead of forcing them to, and it empowers them and gives them ownership of the brand,” she said.

70 percent right; 110 percent sure

Another rule of thumb the panelists follow is the “70 percent right, but 110 percent sure” idea. It is risky, but the reward is great, and it encourages exploration.

“Many of our employees are millennials. They come to me ready to be right. They want to win. Marketing isn’t always about that. You don’t always get it right. You have to balance instinct with knowledge,” Phillips-Luther said. “If you can get to the 70 percent right, 110 percent sure place, it will typically be a win.”

Fail fast. Fail forward.

And, if it isn’t a win, the panelists agreed that failure isn’t necessarily a bad thing. As Kane said, sometimes the best learnings come out of a failure.

“A lot of the best marketing comes from just having balls,” she said.

If something doesn’t seem right, it’s also important not to wait it out to see if it gets better. It won’t.

“If you’re going to fail, fail forward. Cut it off,” Phillips-Luther said.

 Tomasso adds that it’s sometimes difficult for the rest of the team to understand this mentality, but added that it’s important to have a company culture that says ‘It’s OK to fail.”

“That fear of failure kills creativity,” he said.  First Watch even has a marketing hall of fame and a marketing hall of shame at the office.

Social media isn't a strategy

The takeaway that will perhaps surprise non-marketers the most – and that the panelists were most emphatic about – is that “social is not a marketing strategy.”

“It’s a conduit, a way to disseminate information. You can’t build your whole marketing strategy around just social,” Kane said. “That doesn’t mean it’s not important, but you have to think beyond it.”

The content generated through social channels should be aligned with the content shared through traditional marketing channels and in store. It’s also important to make sure which social media platform works best for your brand’s personality.

“The rapid nature in which social media changes can get you to spin your wheels; think of MySpace. Social is one tool in the tool box, but don’t hang your hat on it,” Tomasso said.

Of all the information that gets shared, just 7 percent of word of mouth communication is done online, Dover added. The majority is still people to people.

Three ways to drive sales

Ultimately a marketing strategy’s end goal is the same as the other departments – drive sales. There are only three ways to do so, according to the panelists:

  • Increasing frequency;
  • Increasing check average;
  • Increasing traffic.

This means avoiding constant discounting, which is hard in today’s competitive environment.

“You have to think about what you’re going to do to push your brand forward. The constant discount war, it’s like crack,” Kane said. “It’s more important to look for the stories from your restaurants that will grab the most engagement.”

For example, Kane noted a small brand she’s working with that achieved the most engagement after it posted a story about an Atlanta employee who had to sleep in the restaurant during this year’s ice storm.  

“But, she helped other people get home by hooking them up with other people on the road. The story was real, they felt it, they shared it and it got 10 times the engagement its regular posts get. In my opinion, you have to think about what those stories are,” she said.

Oftentimes, those stories come naturally, Tomasso added.

“If you just read what your customers are saying, you’ll be able to see what resonates with them,” he said.

Don't market into weak operations

Finally, if you have a solid marketing plan, it will fail if your restaurant’s operations team doesn’t execute. It’s called the “double down.”

“You’re spending money to drive people into your restaurants where they get experiences that won’t bring them back,” Tomasso said. “You need to have those conversations. Our restaurants understand the metrics they need to hit to get that support.”

Have something in place to understand the levels of guest satisfaction at your restaurants. Guest satisfaction is the leading indicator of future sales potential. Check out Yelp and Trip Advisor and similar sites.

“If you’re not participating in those conversations, you’re at risk,” Phillips-Luther said.

In addition to participating in those conversations, know your audience. Patronize your restaurants.

“So many things come from just sitting in your restaurant and listening to what’s going on. It’s the most creative place you can be,” Kane said. “Get ideas from the crew, from the customers. Marketing people shouldn’t be chained to meetings.”

Photo provided by Pixabay.

Topics: Marketing / Branding / Promotion, Online / Mobile / Social, Operations Management

Alicia Kelso
Alicia has been a professional journalist for 15 years. Her work with, and has been featured in publications around the world, including NPR, Good Morning America, Voice of Russia radio, and Franchise Asia magazine. View Alicia Kelso's profile on LinkedIn

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