Ricky and Diana run Abila, a family-owned Lebanese restaurant in upstate New York.
They use only the freshest ingredients to prepare adventurous dishes inspired by recipes that have been in Diana’s family for generations. Their wood-burning oven bakes fresh bread for customers and wholesalers around the state. Their menu has won awards for its authenticity and creativity. When you eat at Abila, you enjoy extraordinary food and exceptional service in a relaxed and cozy environment.
There’s only one problem: Unless someone tells you about Abila, you wouldn’t know it exists.
Despite Ricky and Diana’s attention to detail at their venue, they don’t apply the same care to their restaurant brand management.
Abila’s signage consists of black and white block letters that are easily lost in a busy plaza. The restaurant doesn’t have a website, isn’t on social media, and doesn’t advertise special offers or discounts.
Restaurants like Abila are missing out on opportunities to manage their brand and grow their business, capitalizing on what’s so far been a quiet success. Strategic brand management can help these restaurants expand their customer base, move to a larger location with less risk, or even open a second location.
Here are seven brand management strategies that can help Abila – and your restaurant – get a much-needed boost.
What Is Brand Management?
First things first. What is brand management and how does it work?
Brand management is the deliberate presentation of your business to the world. It’s how you communicate who you are and what you do, how you live up to the promises you make in your advertising, and how you set yourself apart from your competitors. Overall, brand management helps customers know what to expect from you through a combination of factors: everything from your logo to your uniforms to your website, service, and – of course – your food. Brand management touches every part of your business.
What’s the difference between marketing and brand management?
Some people like to say one pushes (marketing) and one pulls (brand management). A marketing plan might include offering $5 appetizers every Friday from 4–7 pm, to push that specific menu category to potential customers. On the other hand, a brand management strategy, say a steady stream of behind-the-scenes posts on Instagram, is designed to establish a following for your restaurant that indirectly pulls customers to your venue and all its menu items.
Brand management goes beyond individual transactions to inspire customer trust and loyalty with every interaction customers have with your restaurant, at your venue, online – everywhere. Your brand is your identity.
You’re managing your brand every time you answer the phone, build a menu, choose suppliers, and train your employees. You’re even managing your brand when you clean your washrooms! These are all ways a customer experiences and perceives your brand.
The more strategic you can be when managing your brand, the more control you have over the customer experience and the success of your business.
Now, let’s get tactical, people.
1) Shine a Light on What Sets You Apart
With a dizzying array of restaurant choices, you need to stand out to get regular business.
Do you know what sets you apart from your competitors?
If you can’t answer that in a heartbeat, it’s time to step back and assess. What does your restaurant do better than your competitors? Is it the food, ambiance, service, price, or location?
Once you find your unique selling point (USP), communicate it loudly and clearly using a wide variety of different channels, such as marketing campaigns, décor and menu design, your website, and through social media. You may even include a restaurant tagline or slogan under your logo or train your staff to point out to customers what to expect.
If you go with a tagline, keep it short and simple – only three or four words. Think Nike’s “Just Do It” or KFC’s “Finger Lickin’ Good.” A good tagline immediately evokes an image or an idea, either related to your food, service, or feelings. If you settle on service as your USP, you might consider something like, “Fast, fresh, and friendly.” Just remember to use your USP as your focal point when brainstorming.
Abila has lots of USPs, including their award-winning dishes, their connection to cultural roots, and their state-wide reach. Customers need to know about all of this.
They can begin to fold their USPs into brand management by adding plaques and certifications on restaurant walls, posting about the awards on social media, and including an Awards section on their website.
People want to feel like they’re dining somewhere that’s the “best” in some way. Find your best and inject it into every single thing you do. This is restaurant brand strategy.
2) Become an Expert at Telling Your Own Story
People love a good story. It’s human nature.
When we know that the dish we’re eating was developed in a small kitchen across the globe or won an award or was served to royalty, we feel more connected to the experience.
The stories behind your food, your location, and your people can be shared on your website, through marketing and advertising, on menus and signage in-house, and even at the table – get your servers talking!
Abila has a rich backstory they can pull from, starting with a menu full of Old World recipes, where there’s a narrative behind every dish. The key is to find a way to personalize the story, to make it come alive for the customer.
For example, Abila could frame a large portrait of Diana’s grandmother – the namesake of the restaurant – and hang it in the venue. They could also change up their floorplan or knock down one of the walls, so diners get a clear view of the stunning wood-burning oven at the heart of their cuisine. Even more, the website could tell the story of grandmother Abila, from start to finish. Servers’ uniforms could echo the restaurant’s décor, and the waiting area could double as a retail space with Abila-branded merchandise, such as t-shirts, aprons, and spice packets.
Harnessing your restaurant’s story gives you a powerful tool to help manage your brand, reaching a wider audience and enriching their experience at your venue.
3) Turn Your Employees into Grade A Brand Ambassadors
You know it’s critical to hire employees who are a good fit and treat them well. That’s a given.
But employing staff who are genuinely enthusiastic about the products and services they offer is a successful restaurant’s secret weapon. They are brand ambassadors and they’re invaluable.
They’ll communicate their excitement about the food authentically to customers – and to their friends and family (and ideally Instagram followers). “Influencer” advertising is priceless when it comes from someone in the know.
But you can’t just cross your fingers and hope this happens naturally. You’ve got to do the legwork!
So how do you nurture your staff to become brand ambassadors?
Start with hiring. Communicate your brand’s identity at every stage of the process and ask yourself (and your prospects) if their personality and preferences align. Pick employees who understand and embody your USPs.
Then give them lots of reasons to love you. They should feel valued and empowered so they can make genuine recommendations and provide heartfelt service. Some ways to do this are by providing:
- Fair wages: Do a competitive analysis to see what other restaurants in your area are offering for similar roles. This may mean going above minimum wage for certain roles or distributing tip pools in a more inclusive way.
- Proper onboarding: The best onboarding programs contain four key ingredients – compliance (the rules), clarification (their responsibilities and how they fit into the bigger picture), culture (here’s where your brand values fit in), and connection (you want your employees to be friends, trust us).
- Education: Have any special processes for sourcing ingredients or preparing food? Make sure every employee is trained in what this is, even if their job doesn’t touch the process directly – it’s part of your story and they should be able educate customers.
- Respectful management: Beyond the obvious of providing a safe place of employment, respectful management extends to areas like scheduling. Offer advance notice of schedules (what’s required by law or more), have a time off request process, and create a fair solution for holiday shifts – there are many ways you can show your staff respect.
- A real interest in providing a positive workplace: Live your brand values in every decision you make at your restaurant. But also consider creating a process to collect their feedback and suggestions AND make a real effort to use that input.
Foster this kind of atmosphere and your employees will extend the same courtesy and care to your customers.
4) Inspire Customer Loyalty
If you want to attract a loyal following, you’ve got to impress the customers who have influence. Who are they? All of them.
Anyone with an opinion and access to the internet can review your restaurant – favorably or not. And their impressions matter. Peer-to-peer reviews on sites like Yelp and Google often hold more weight for consumers than any advertising campaign – no matter how many free appetizers you offer.
Whether online or through word of mouth, reviews from loyal customers are invaluable. So beyond doing your best to provide a great experience at your restaurant, how do you foster this loyalty?
Consider adopting a loyalty program, which studies show can boost sales by 30%. Loyalty programs empower you to reward customers with points, encouraging repeat business and higher spending; communicate with your customers easily by text and email, keeping them engaged; and collect valuable customer information, so you can offer customized rewards they’ll actually want.
But overall, a loyalty program gives you the perfect opportunity to reinforce your brand identity with customers – wherever they are – while making the experience feel personal to them.
5) Align Your Brand with a Like-Minded Good Cause
Who doesn’t love a brand with a conscience?
When you get involved with local charities, community groups, and international causes that share your brand values – like a commitment to ethically sourced products, humane agriculture, or giving back to global causes – you amplify your brand by association. You give customers more opportunities to notice your brand in a positive way – especially when the values align with their own.
What’s up for grabs if you do this successfully? A customer’s business – for life.
In the corporate world, they call this corporate social responsibility (CSR), but it’s really just community engagement.
Sponsoring local sports teams, partnering with cultural or social communities, and making donations to charities and fundraising events that align with your business’s core values – these are all ways customers can interact with your restaurant outside of your venue.
A little engagement goes a long way to managing your brand within the community and demonstrating to customers that you care about more than just your bottom line.
6) Up Your Social Media Game
If a restaurant isn’t on Instagram, does it even exist?
That’s a very real question when you consider that ’gram heavyweights (aka Millennials) dine out more often – and spend more – than other demographics. And how do you connect with millennials? Have a strong social media game.
Being present and active on social media provides a constant reminder of your brand and how it makes them feel. Plus, it doesn’t hurt to be creative with plating and décor to encourage customers to snap a food selfie and share with all their followers.
Check out Instagram masters Pietro Nolita, a restaurant that knows who it is and what it stands for: Great food! Pink! An irreverent, DGAF attitude! Their Instagram feed is like a master class in brand management – although each post is different, you can see how they connect to the restaurant’s core values and USP.
Are you new to social media? Here’s how to get started:
- Choose a couple of platforms (Facebook and Instagram, for example) and update each one at least two or three times a week.
- Be visual. Post photos and videos of sizzling hot food, exciting new décor, happy customers, or servers.
- Develop your own look and voice, keeping in mind your logo, tagline, and restaurant décor. Then keep it consistent throughout your posts.
- Answer comments, questions, and even complaints from customers on social media. Besides arguing with a disgruntled customer, the worst thing you can do online is ignore them.
- Go for shares, not likes. It’s nice to be liked but it’s even better to be passed around to others. Post interesting, helpful, or unique photos, facts, or videos to increase the likelihood of being shared.
7) Develop a Plan for when Things Go Wrong
A customer posts a scathing review on social media or Yelp. One of your staff members will be rude to a customer who’s trying their patience. A new dish on your holiday menu falls flat.
And that’s okay. That’s part of doing business. And most reasonable people understand that not everything will be perfect all the time.
Unfortunately, in the age of the viral review/video/rant, you will be subject to scrutiny on a larger scale than in the past. Prevention is important, but so are brand recovery efforts.
That’s what The Red Hen had to do. The Washington D.C. restaurant happens to share the same name as the Lexington, Virginia restaurant that refused service to White House Press Secretary Sarah Sanders last June.
Even though the Washington D.C. restaurant had nothing to do with the highly political incident, their name associated them with the scandal. They quickly found themselves in a maelstrom of hate email, phone calls, and social media posts.
The Red Hen released PR-friendly statements right away to clarify that they had no affiliation with the Lexington restaurant, but it was only when they switched strategies to a more playful tone that they managed to get ahead of the crisis. “We switched to a tone of trying to be funny about it and make fun of ourselves,” says Alysa Turner, The Red Hen’s communications director in an article from Restaurant Business. “That was very successful in getting the word out.”
What this case of mistaken identity shows us is that you want to have a process in place beforethings go wrong. That way you can act quickly, stay on top of what’s being said about your brand, and steer the message back in the right direction.
Here are some tips to help you get started:
- Monitor daily. The last thing you want is to be caught unawares when a rogue customer or employee goes off about you online. Set a Google alert for your restaurant name so you’re notified if it comes up in the news or on blogs. You’ll also want to monitor your social media accounts every day to check for comments – good and bad.
- Answer immediately. Don’t let nasty online comments or tweets fester. Get ahead of bad PR by responding right away. Quick answers demonstrate that you’re paying attention to your brand and that you care about customer opinions.
- Be gracious. Take a deep breath, paint on your best “the customer is always right” gritted smile, and respond with respect. Start with, “We’re sorry you had a bad experience and we want to make it right.”
- Take it offline. Invite the customer who’s complaining to talk to you directly – away from the prying eyes of the world wide web – so you can do your best to defuse the situation. DM is great, but a phone call is even better. If you manage to resolve the problem, ask them to update their original comment, and mitigate the damage to your brand.
- Move on. Even if you’re not able to come to a perfect resolution, you’ll need to let it go. Ideally sooner than later. It’s helpful to remember that social media moves at lightning speed. Do your best, but don’t let haters get you down for long.
With all these factors to consider, it may seem like restaurant brand management is a Herculean task. It’s not (we promise).
It really comes down to knowing who you are and what you want to accomplish with your restaurant. Revisit your business plan (or create a simple one-pager) to remind yourself why you opened in the first place. What do you stand for? What do you serve? Who do you serve? How do you want customers to feel when they dine in your restaurant? What would you want them to tell their friends?
Like Abila, you have all the elements you need to create a strong brand management strategy. All you have to do is take the cues from what you’ve accomplished and be consistent and intentional about communicating who you are.