The Brand Landscape

As humbling as it is to be writing this in the shadow of such savvy restaurateurs, last month, I celebrated my 25th anniversary in the restaurant business and have been reflecting a lot on our industry–how it has changed and how it remains the same. I’ve had the privilege of working with or for many iconic entrepreneurs and restaurant executives on over thirty restaurant brands, and the one thing I can say without a doubt is, I love the restaurant industry.  It is extremely simple, deceptively complex and endlessly entertaining…and we get to eat great food at great restaurants and call it “research.”  Work, work, work.

So with apologies to those marketers whose merchandising materials I have re-appropriated over the years, as well as thanks to those entrepreneurs who have inspired me, those marketing executives who have mentored me, those presidents and CEOs who have trusted me, those marketing teams that have supported me and those operators who have taught me how to think like a restaurateur, here goes…

I started in the restaurant business as Director of Marketing for Max & Erma’s Restaurants in the summer of 1984.  I was fresh out of graduate school and a friend whose husband was the food and beverage director there gave my resume to the founder who had just been to a seminar on Marketing. (He always wanted to be the first guy on the block with the latest new toy.) Having read their annual report, where they said, “We know we can be all things to all people,” I was sure I could be of help.

So armed with my MBA and the naïve confidence of someone who doesn’t know what they don’t know, I went after the job as their first “marketing” director.

I’ll never forget my first day meeting with the president. He said to me, “I have no idea what you’ll be doing here.”  So my second day on the job, I presented a plan to do some research. In that research, we were able to identify our target market and learn some important things. Among other things, we learned that although it looked like we were all things to all people, we actually weredifferent things to different people on different occasions. Ah…segmentation. We also learned that 10-20% of our guests were visiting for the first time. Since that research 25 years ago …I’ve repeated similar research with hundreds of guests for a dozen brands and it’s always the same…between 10 and 20% of guests are first timers-one in every five or ten.

The only difference is, in 1984, guests often gave a new restaurant a couple of chances; now, new restaurants usually get only one chance to make that first impression. But clearly, the challenge is still the same…how do you make the crucial emotional connection with your guests…especially first time guests?

  • When I first experienced Mimi’s Café years ago in California, our server delivered fresh hot muffins to go as we left. The gesture made a connection with me, and I have loved the brand ever since.
  • That ability to break through and make an emotional connection with guests has become more and more important given the increasingly competitive brand landscape. Brands combine the rational and emotional. It’s not just what you do, but how it makes people feel.
  • Similarly, I recently noticed a woman at the table next to me (a research technique I call “strategic eavesdropping”) visibly react with pleasure when the server arrived with her amazingly garnished cocktail shaken and poured in front of her. It wasn’t the cocktail, it was the emotional connection of the custom presentation that brought on her visible pleasure.

The challenge is the same today as it was 25 years ago-how do you connect with your guests in a way that sets you apart from the increasingly cluttered competitive landscape.  Until next time… I’d love to hear your thoughts.