I was chatting yesterday with a chap who runs a load of restaurants … and I mean A LOAD!  Among the topics of our conversation were the “good old days” when the sophistocated man-about-my-neck-of-the-woods, out to cut a dash, took his “bird” to a Berni Inn.  In those days of course there were, by today’s standards, limited options for the young stud out to impress  – Wimpy, Berni Inns, the local pub where you might get that French delicacy “chicken-in-a-basket”, one of the emerging Chinese restaurants, and independents from Joe’s Caf to the more aspirational, Gino or Carlo’s.

By comparison, today’s aspiring roue is spoilt for choice.  Not only has there been a proliferation of independent eateries of all palates and ethnicities, the number of restaurant chains is enough to set plates spinning and because each one is desperate to establish a point-of-difference, today’s eating experience has become as much an entertainment as the date – especially if you have my luck!

I used to frequent Alastair Little’s restaurant in Frith Street, Soho where the man himself once told me that the average restaurant had a life of around three years, after which you had to reinvent yourself.  These days that rule of thumb at least hasn’t changed.  If you watch Gordon Ramsey’s antics on TV, you’ll know that the key to restaurant success is to devise a unique theme and then exploit it to the full.  This lesson has been adopted by all the big chains since TGI Friday’s, who recognised that while a new restaurant format will always add novelty value to an entertaining theme, for the punter, even the most compelling theme is great for two, or maybe three visits.  After that, unless something changes, you’ll find them asking “so what now?”.  If the answer is “nothing” they’ll be beating a path to the next food entertainment experience.  The “novelty effect” may also compensate for a few deficiencies, which gives you a narrow window of opportunity to iron out those niggly operational issues, but “narrow” is the important word here.  Pretty soon, its back to reality.

What we are talking about here is brand development and I love the restaurant business because it offers one of the clearest demonstrations of the concept of “brand community” and “brandships”, which has been my personal cause celebre for many years.

For a restaurateur this isn’t just a case of introducing new things to the menu, although that plays its part, you have to continually tweak other elements too.  Data management comes into play here as you define your segments and start to manage them.  You’ll have customer-segments, day-segments and seasonal demands that will probably all be heading in different directions out from your central theme and the devices you use to manage your community will be as diverse as these segments.  Starbucks discovered early on that day-segments demand different music and its a no-brainer that restaurant day-segments require different food, but that’s not only to accommodate the traditional meal variations, but different customer types – for instance, pensioners and young moms in the morning and groups of youngsters in the evening.

Its also not enough just to make changes, you have to make sure everyone recognises them.  I was in a chain restaurant recently that had a number of USPs and had introduced new items to its list, but none of them were highlighted.  That’s an ommission no operator can afford to make, but the ways in which you publicise development are as many and varied as your segments.  I don’t belive that Face book and Twitter are the panacea that some marketers suggest they are, but we are talking social networking here and while grannies don’t Tweet much, (unless you squeeze them really hard!) if you have a “youth” segment you can use this medium intelligently to drive awareness of the changes and maintain the freshness of your brand.  Press Relations and grass roots events will play their part in heightening awareness of your brand and its freshness, as will viral, personal appearances, demonstrations and good, old-fashioned advertising and PoS, plus, don’t forget your floor staff – dif’rent folks, dif’rent strokes!

Like any brand community a restaurant brand is a constantly evolving thing with opportunities for maximum customer involvement and engagement at every level that no operator can afford to miss.  Who do you think is making the most of their community?

Michael Weaver
May 6, 2010

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