Social media expert: Restaurants need to get better at brand storytelling

| by Alicia Kelso
Social media expert: Restaurants need to get better at brand storytelling

Because of its necessary focus on food and service, the restaurant industry has been dogged for being behind other industries on many fronts, especially those related to technology. According to one social media expert, it's also behind on an important marketing component: Brand storytelling.

"In most cases, restaurants are good at promoting their products. They always have been. But frankly the restaurant industry is not good at brand storytelling. This is more challenging to do, but it can allow brands to do some interesting stuff," said Brian Kotlyar, AVP of Demand Generation at Sprinklr.

Doing "interesting stuff" is more critical than ever in the age of digital and as younger consumers continue to gain spending power. The younger demographics gravitate to brands that resonate through their messaging. Good examples include GoPro, BMW and Dove, according to Kotlyar.

"GoPro built its entire brand off of interesting visuals the product itself created and it's exciting. Dove's 'real women' campaign is emotional, beautiful and interesting. And BMW's ads that show the cars stunt driving show an expression of value without having to say 'Ultimate Driving Machine,'" he said.

That's not to say restaurant brands should stop focusing on their products, but there is an additional opportunity for storytelling and to get people excited about the brand.

Inconsistent messaging

Kotlyar pointed out another major opportunity for companies utilizing social media channels – unifying the message. This challenge is especially unique to the restaurant industry because of its franchised and global presence.

"In industries where there is basically one core brand on a global level and one operating structure around that core brand, they can load up on resources and have a more sophisticated execution. That's a challenge for many restaurant companies because of the way they're structured. They're still figuring how to enforce global consistency," Kotlyar said.   

For example, any search for a large brand on Facebook will often yield numerous results – the main brand, the brand in India or another country, the local restaurant that is part of the brand and the brand's regional group.

These disparities don't have to be a disadvantage, but they should have a purpose.

"These different pages add complexity, but there are a lot of benefits if played correctly and I think we'll start to see that streamlined effort more. Many of these different pages are there because they've just been there since the beginning. Brands that are forward thinking will get their hands around this issue and put the infrastructure in place so that the experience isn't confusing for someone who just wants to eat, not search around for what they need," Kotlyar said.

As brands implement a more unified social presence, they don't have to compromise local marketing efforts, however.

"You don't want to ignore flexibility but you have to have it done on purpose," Kotlyar said. "That's the problem now – where these discrepancies occur, it's because it happened organically, not on purpose."

In other words, if a brand pursues a regional social messaging approach -- with promotions, menus, flavors, etc. -- it should have the same infrastructure as the overall brand's presence.

"You wouldn't let some regional manager set up your menu willy nilly, and you shouldn't let them do that with your digital presence either," Kotlyar said.

Changes are swift

The "willy nilly" pages underscore the swift pace at which social media moves. Many of these pages have been around for less than two years and things have changed significantly in the social space since then.

"The challenge is no longer winning the game in terms of having the biggest presence or most followers. Two years ago, that was the case. Now, we're at the point where quality matters before activity matters," Kotlyar said.

Also, just because the pace is swift and new channels – such as Snapchat and Vine – pop up seemingly all the time, that doesn't mean Facebook is dying. It is still very critical, Kotlyar said, with a "Super Bowl-sized audience" every single day.

"People have been ringing the death bell for TV and radio and the printed word and it's similar now for Facebook. The reality is that the world is getting more complex, but the old ways aren't dying," he said. 

Conversely, for brands, Facebook's advertising platform is becoming more important and effective, he added.

As for the new channels, there is a "huge opportunity," but they should be approached only after strength and consistency is established with the overall social strategy.

"If you don't have your house in order to participate on Facebook and Twitter, with a consistency of message and experience, it's premature to turn your folks loose on Snapchat and Vine," Kotlyar said. "But if you have the infrastructure in place, there is a huge opportunity to go to these new places and it can be interesting and experimental and authentic."

So, what's next? Kotlyar doesn't have a prediction about a specific channel, but he said there is significantly more investment pouring into digital and social than ever before. With this investment will come "more sophisticated, compelling customer experiences."

"Brands finally realize the necessity of not only have a social presence, but social resources and consistency and they're investing according. We are moving to an era of appropriate staffing and weight to digital and social. The challenge for brands will be having more clarity in their branding so they can use these new tools," he said.


Kotlyar's commentary complements new research from Sprinklr which examines the top 25 restaurant brands on social media. Sprinklr examined these metrics based on engagement, earned impressions, impressions, active participants, active audience, brand posts and engagement ratio. In the $700 billion restaurant industry, nine out of 10 restaurants are using social, so the data runs deep.

The full rankings are available here

The top 10 include:

  1. McDonald's
  2. KFC
  3. Pizza Hut
  4. Applebee's
  5. Burger King
  6. Starbucks
  7. Subway
  8. Domino's
  9. Wendy's
  10. Dunkin' Donuts

Kotlyar said the diversity of brands shows just how vast the social media user demographic is across channels. He adds that three categories of brands emerged from the data compiled:

  • Really well-known mega brands. "What they've done is acquire large audiences and gotten into the habit of producing content those audiences respond to," Kotlyar said. "They have an impressive capability to interact with groups in a scalable way."
  • Smaller company standouts. Kotlyar points to Wingstop as a good example of a regional brand that has been efficient with its social media presence, many times producing a greater reach than far larger brands. Wingstop was No. 18 on Sprinklr's ranking.
  • The "larger companies that are all over the place." These companies will do something impressive for a certain period of time, and then they'll revert, Kotlyar said. "Maybe they're really good at one geography more than others. They're evolving, but they haven't figured it out as much as the big guys have," he said. 

Photo provided by Flickr user Rosenfeld Media.

Topics: Marketing / Branding / Promotion, Online / Mobile / Social, Trends / Statistics

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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