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Clayton Hauck
It’s impossible to imagine a marketing strategy today that doesn’t span the myriad digital platforms that have become essential to everyday life—merch included.

The Essential Guide to Restaurant Marketing

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No longer limited to TV and radio, marketing done well is more important than ever with a highly informed, selective audience. Here’s how to market your restaurant using any (and every) channel.
By Leigh Kunkel October 2018 Marketing & Promotions

Twenty years ago, it would have been impossible to imagine a marketing medium that could surpass television in terms of influence and reach; today, it’s impossible to imagine a marketing strategy that doesn’t include, or even center on, the myriad digital platforms that have become essential to everyday life. While television may still have the largest audience, restaurateurs who want to successfully market their ventures must now grapple with an ever-expanding array of media options. The key, whether you’re an iconic international chain or a family-run independent eatery, is adaptability. 

“In today’s rapidly changing media landscape, visibility and relevance are more important than ever,” says Brad Haley, chief marketing officer for IHOP Restaurants. “Advertisers can no longer put out flat-footed content and hope it will work through sheer tonnage. Work has to be something consumers want to engage with rather than something they’re forced to watch, like the old push model.”

Old meets new

Founded in 1958, IHOP is decidedly a member of the old guard of American chain restaurants. But its legacy status hasn’t prevented it from changing with the times; though you’ll still see plenty of fluffy pancake stacks on TV, it was digital media that launched its latest successful campaign, called “IHOb,” to highlight the restaurant’s burgers. 

The IHOb strategy, Haley says, was to use social media in order to get people guessing what the “b” might stand for. “It gamified the marketing program and got a lot of people engaged in the process.” And while it began as a digital campaign, IHOb quickly garnered interest from traditional offline platforms; there were reports of radio stations doing call-in contests, office pools, and a steady stream of coverage both in print and on television. IHOP’s clever digital strategy garnered it more than 25,000 earned media pieces, as well as more than 41 billion impressions, demonstrating the power of combining new and old media. 

What many brands are now finding is that though television is still the most effective method of reaching the average customer, with the Nielsen ratings company estimating that 96.5 percent of American households own a TV, that reach is slowly eroding in the face of streaming services and social channels. The direction is clear, says Haley: While there’s a place for the old channels, new media is the future. 

Genuine connection

Carrie Sloan, director of marketing for Chicago’s Land and Sea Department group, which has nine properties in the city, has seen a shift away from not only traditional methods of advertising, but also toward a different type of communication: “Dealing with the vast number of restaurants in Chicago, we’ve adapted to communicate more directly with guests rather than relying on press coverage—journalists can only cover so much news.” 

Instead, their group puts effort into crafting newsletters that go out to their guest base, increasing the feeling of a genuine connection between the restaurant and customer. People still want to turn to trusted sources for information and recommendations, says Sloan, but digital media has made it easier than ever for people to actually be their own expert and to share their experiences with followers. 

“It puts the experience into the consumer’s hands,” she says. 

Authentic voices ring true

Even once brands have settled on a strategy, there’s still the issue of what to say. The increasing number of platforms has led to a glut of content, much of which disappears with little-to-no impact; as consumers are bombarded with more and more communications from brands, they have become increasingly selective about what they will watch, click on, or read. 

“It might sound cliché, but actually being authentic carries a huge weight today,” Sloan says. Consumers notice when a brand does something that’s out of sync with how it typically operates or doesn’t carry a consistent voice through from one platform to the next. 

The key, according to IHOP’s Haley, is to successfully adapt your voice and tone to the specific demands of each channel. “They all have different ways for people to interact. Some may be more straightforward and informative, others more video-centric. Content is king, but tone has to be adapted for the personalities of various social channels.” 

For a successful media strategy now, it’s vital to understand the purpose of each channel and the appropriate type of content for each; what works on Instagram is not necessarily going to be successful on TV. That’s what makes a brand’s voice so essential: It provides a throughline that connects each channel, making you instantly recognizable to customers, whether they’re browsing Twitter or watching TV. As Sloan puts it, “Beautiful photography and dishes on Instagram are great, but having a voice your followers can engage with is key.” 

She also cautions against playing too rigidly by the social media “rules,” like posting a certain number of times in a day. Content is important, she says, but it’s not worth degrading your brand with posts for their own sake if they aren’t authentic to your restaurant’s point of view. 

Smart insights, smart risks

Knowing what content can break through the noise can be a struggle, says Haley, but that doesn’t mean taking unnecessary risks on questionable campaigns is a good idea. Rather, take informed risks based on smart insights. 

For IHOP, this means working with advertising agencies whose job it is to come up with the kind of bold, headline-grabbing ideas that transcend the clutter. And to bring those ideas to life, it sometimes also requires Haley to champion the agency’s more disruptive concepts and protect them from becoming too watered down. 

“We want an agency that’s brave enough to do their best work, and then we need to be brave enough to put it forward,” he says.

The other, equally important half of this strategy is data science and analytics. IHOP relies on data analysis for its media planning, using insights gleaned from everything from customers’ social media behavior to in-store response to new menu items. Whereas a few years ago, data science was viewed as a luxury, it has become a necessity. 

“We’re in a highly competitive industry, so maintaining the status quo is not viable when we’re in a battle for shares. As audience reach potential diminishes, it becomes imperative to become more surgical in reaching the most relevant audience with the most relevant message at the most relevant time.” 

Hotel Ingenuity

Marketing a restaurant is complicated enough, but when that restaurant is located in a hotel, a bit of extra ingenuity is required. Rebecca Mervis, area director of marketing for Precinct Kitchen + Bar and Bank & Bourbon, located in Loews Boston and Philadelphia hotels, respectively, shares some of her tips.

Know Your Audience

The hotel and restaurant often have different target guests, with the restaurant attracting both business travelers and tourists, as well as a younger, hipper local crowd. In order to sustain interest, you have to be able to appeal to both visitors and repeat guests.

Keep Things Fresh

"Restaurant marketing is different than hotel marketing in that time has a different effect on each – after several years, great hotels create a reputation and establish credibility; after several years, great restaurants lose relevance," says Mervis. She combats this by creating programming including pop-up menus themed around current pop culture events, and seasonal menus that constantly invite guests to try new things.

Mix It Up

Mervis loves social media for its flexibility, which allows her restaurants to respond to things like the weather by posting Instagram shots of comfort food on a rainy day, along with an appropriately appealing caption. And for specific events, like those pop-up menus, "digital marketing on relevant platforms can do really well. Combine that with editorial coverage, paid digital ads, and/or sponsored content to reinforce your message and keep upcoming events on the radar."

Instagram Rules

Because of its natural affinity for beautiful food and well-decorated spaces, Instagram is the social media platform of choice for many restaurants. Shelby Allison, co-owner and Instagram manager of Chicago's Lost Lake tiki bar, has amassed nearly 25,000 followers through a combination of colorful cocktails and fun portraits. We asked her how she does it.

What's the most important factor to consider in creating a successful Instagram feed? Authenticity—your followers can tell if you're just pumping PR photos into their feed. I've found that our followers engage with Instagram posts that are shot on my phone, with some whimsical tropical props found around the bar.

How does Instagram fit into an overall marketing plan? Instagram rules our marketing plan. We work with a publicist for traditional media placements, but Instagram has led to lots of opportunities for Lost Lake—as well as created a direct channel of communication with our guests.

What is unique about Instagram content versus other social media platforms? With Instagram, I feel less likely to be lost in the shuffle, unlike on Facebook. I'm happy with our level of engagement, and I like that we can do composed iPhone shots for our main feed, as well as fun, more casual stories.

What should you avoid in your Instagram marketing? Avoid creating a feed comprising only super polished PR photos. Show your spot's personality and have a little fun while creating photos that your guests will be delighted by and engage with enthusiastically.