Killing the Colonel, one snicker at a time
20/08/15 Branding & Marketing Strategy # , , , , ,

Killing the Colonel, one snicker at a time

Originally posted on

For those of us desperately holding onto the cusp of the Millennial category, Colonel Sanders is an icon we remember fondly. He was a jovial Southern gentleman who only cared about making darn good fried chicken for his guests. He may have been a bit overprotective of his recipe, but who cared when the product was so delicious? It was a simple vision, and it worked well for KFC. Over the decades The Colonel was slowly phased out, as was the original brand name, Kentucky Fried Chicken. There wasn’t a big uproar as The Colonel himself has passed in 1980, it only seemed natural to move on. But now he’s back, or should I say his weirder and borderline creepy doppelgänger is back making a joke of the classic, beloved spokesperson icon.

Here’s a quick catch up for those who haven’t seen KFC’s recent advertising: KFC launched a new campaign featuring Saturday Night Live icon, Darrel Hammond. Hammond adorns the Colonel’s look from iconic white suit to prosthetics that gets him sort of close to almost looking just like Colonel Sanders. The prosthetics isn’t the only synthetic parts of the persona as Hammond adopts an exaggerated Southern accent and persona to the point of mockery. This week a new set of commercials for the fried chicken legend were launched featuring Hammond’s former comedy compatriot, Norm MacDonald. The spots derive from the same idea, same prosthetic Colonel Sanders, with a worse attempt at a Southern accent. So bad, in fact, he can’t keep the accent going long enough for a 30 second spot.

KFC advertisements featuring Darrell Hammond:

KFC advertisements featuring Norm MacDonald:

It’s quite evident that the agency responsible for this new angle is not from the South, nor have they spent any amount of time immersing themselves in Southern culture. It’s a result of basing cultural assumptions on commonly accepted stereotypes.

With every exaggerated snicker in the advertisement I cringe more and more.

Sure, I’m a Yankee-turned-Rebel, but since moving to the Southern US (ATL!) five years ago I’ve become quite fond of the mentality we have here. Southern hospitality is quite real and Colonel Sanders was a representation of that dying, endearing quality. With every exaggerated snicker in the advertisement I cringe more and more. Every second the mocking accent thickens I get a little more put off. I find myself asking: Is this really worth selling more fried chicken? What’s so wrong with being a good person, and actually caring about guests? Do Northerners actually think all Southerners are backwards idiots?

How would I answer in my opinion? No, selling more chicken at the expense of a benevolent icon is not worth it; there’s nothing wrong with being a beacon of good will and hospitality; and, yes, it seems Northerners think us Southerners are snickering fools.

KFC has a lot of endearing qualities. It sells comfort food that evokes feelings and thoughts of home, friends, family, and nostalgic good times. Those feelings are extremely powerful triggers for any generation, even the elusive Millennial. Far too often marketers and creatives rely on quippy wit, and tongue-in-cheek playfulness to drive storytelling and messaging. While we all enjoy a well-played pun, and timely jab of wit, sometimes that’s not what the brand’s communications demand. KFC is one such case.

I realize that KFC is a global brand, and not everyone understands the roots from which the company and its spokesperson originated. However, that’s no excuse to take the lazy approach of furthering a stereotype that misses the mark completely. KFC has the opportunity to use the good-natured, hospitable icon to create a tangible, authentic spirit inside and outside the four walls of the brand experience. It’s something no other competitor can own, yet they’ve chosen to tarnish the opportunity with a weird, mocking impostor.

One final note, the new KFC website is quite awesome.

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Consumer connections are the key to impactful marketing
17/03/15 Branding & Marketing Strategy # , , , ,

Consumer connections are the key to impactful marketing

Originally published in Restaurant Hospitality Magazine, read the article here.

The other night a new commercial for a restaurant chain caught my attention. It wasn’t the content nor was it the offer that snatched my curiosity, but rather the utter monotony and lack of anything new. The moment sparked a dive into my mental catalog of restaurant advertising and marketing, and one glaringly blatant commonality sprang out: Something vital is missing.

Restaurants are pretty good at following the “rules” of advertising and marketing. Show your product to create enticement. Offer a deal to woo a new trial or lukewarm previous customer. Create excitement and put it on for a limited time to “act now before it’s too late.” For decades this playbook was successful, but the game has evolved. It’s no longer enough, and the reason is both simple and complex. It’s devoid of any emotional tie or offering beyond the restaurant’s core offering: food.

Things have changed in consumer perceptions of brands. In general, they don’t trust advertising. Scandals in ethics, poor quality of food and the proliferation of the effects of processed products have corroded the legitimacy of restaurant brands. Traditional advertising has become akin to listening to a politician on his podium. It invokes skepticism and, as a result, gets tossed aside as mostly false or a downright lie in some extreme cases. One thing is left floating in the consumer’s mind: “So what? Prove it.”

Furthermore, product-focused advertising is all about the brand and not about consumers and their lifestyle. It’s an entirely selfish, “me-me-me” mentality, which makes it easy to ignore. Think about it. When is the last time you ever engaged with a person who told you how amazing they were? “Hi, I’m Joseph. I’m the coolest guy you’ll ever meet.” I’m surprised you got through that sentence without wanting to walk away. Restaurants must shift their focus to the consumer’s lifestyle and attitude, and what their product does to enhance them. Brands that do this successfully—such as Chipotle, Starbucks and Apple—have created a connection that’s hard to break, thereby fostering loyalty and brand evangelism.

Something bigger must be present beyond the latest ad campaign to not just attract, but also connect with consumers. Having a passion for something beyond the core product helps brands rise above competitors that focus on price and product alone. In the extremely aggressive and saturated restaurant industry this passionate purpose elevates a brand above the din.

A passionate purpose creates an emotional connection engrained in the company’s culture from the top down, inside to the outside. It permeates through every part of the business. In order to follow suit, a brand has to stop squawking flimsy promises and start walking the walk. That’s a tall order for any company, but one that is vital for gaining market share or halting a decline in some severe cases.

So, where does a brand start? Here are three tips to start the shift from product-centric marketing to emotional communications that are driven by a passionate purpose.

1. Toss the food focus and dig deeper to focus on people.

Although a good product is important, and showing your delicious glory shots of food shouldn’t stop, people are attracted to brands that reflect core values and beliefs that align with their own. They buy from brands that bolster and communicate their lifestyle and attitude. When someone buys a Starbucks coffee, it represents his or her busy lifestyle and concurrent need for catering to his or her specific demands. Think of the person who orders a double grande latte, skinny, heated to 130°. That is someone with demands and little time. The Starbucks brand represents a status that consumers wish to convey to the world, and that statement is what attracts and retains their loyal patrons.

2. Pinpoint a passionate purpose that connects with consumers.

Finding and pinpointing a passionate purpose may be something that comes easily to some brands, but can be much harder for others. It’s not as simple as brainstorming ideas in a room. It has to make sense and connect with people, while being legitimate and authentic. That only comes from in-depth consumer insights, brand strategy development and a dedication to threading the passionate purpose throughout the organization. Missing the mark won’t necessarily hurt a brand much, but sticking the landing will make all the difference.

3. Inject that purpose throughout every part of the business.

Chipotle’s renowned dedication to sustainable products, sourcing and the fair treatment of livestock connects with consumer interests because they live that passionate purpose. Chipotle has done little on-air advertising, instead relying on their actions to spark word of mouth. Actions do speak louder than words, especially in a situation where credibility is in question. Chipotle’s actions across the board add weight and credibility to their passionate purpose.

Considerations for purchase have increased in complexity. They have less to do with a restaurant’s product or deal, and more to do with what buying the brand communicates to world on behalf of the consumer. While good food and service are important, they have reached parity, leaving people looking for a larger reason to patronize one brand versus another. Brands like Starbucks and Chipotle convey a status that connects with consumers beyond utilitarian food offering. They tap into emotions that are bolstered throughout their respective companies, and it’s that emotion that needs to be injected into restaurant brand marketing. That’s the missing ingredient.

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Key social media lessons found in the movie The Chef
09/03/15 Branding & Marketing Strategy # , , , ,

Key social media lessons found in the movie The Chef

Originally published on Medium

I finally watched Chef last night. I don’t know what took me so long, but thanks to Netflix, I finally did it. The movie is great, but the ties to marketing restaurants through a social media strategy are even greater. If you’re an owner/operator and didn’t find any inspiration in that particular element, you’re missing something big.

The brilliance of the movie’s take on social media wasn’t that it was so easy to do that a 12 year old could make it happen. No. It was that what this kid was doing was sharing a story and an authentic life via social channels. That’s what connected with people and started a movement.

However, that movement couldn’t have happened without a following to begin with, and that’s where a lot of restaurateurs and chefs both miss the mark. So, using the movie as a jumping off point, I decided to share three tips for making social media work for your culinary career, restaurant, and your brand.

(Spoiler Alert: I will be discussing some key elements of the plot. If you haven’t watched Chef, then proceed at your own risk.)

Do something crazy. In the movie, the character played by Jon Favreau didn’t even have a twitter account until his poor review went “viral.” His reaction was ill-advised, but it worked to his benefit at first. He responded to the reviewer with a sassy jab, which took the controversy further, but also put him on the Twitter map. So, do something crazy. Everyone is sharing the same stuff (eg. pictures of food, staff, etc.) If you follow suit there is nothing that makes you stand out. Be ballsy, be brave and do something that gets attention in the right way. It doesn’t have to be rude or fueled with a negative attitude like a cliche Kanye interruption.

Find what you love. In the story the chef’s fallout causes him to find something a lot of folks never find: a passion. He rekindles his passion for food and cooking in general. It was about simplifying his life and focusing his passion that pushed him through the rough spot and put him on course for a better, happier future personally and professionally. If you share things socially that are contrived, or devoid of passion, people will see through it quite quickly. Passion is something that’s authentic and can’t be faked, so go find it, go live it, and go share it.

Passion is something that’s authentic and can’t be faked

Share your life and story. As a single-unit or small multi-unit operator, or a chef, you have a huge opportunity that larger brands don’t. You can be human. Bigger brands lack the human element that attract people. They constantly try to inject it, but you’re at an advantage in that you can be yourself. In a social world where people are sick of being inundated with brand messaging, this is a huge opportunity. In Chef, the kid shares the journey from Miami back to LA moment by moment. This honesty, transparency and authenticity attracted masses of followers. It was human. It was real. In a digital world, realness is something in short supply.

Go beyond Facebook. In the movie, the two key platforms used were Twitter and Vine. Although many would say Vine has peaked, it’s interesting to see that Facebook wasn’t used at all. Now, this could be because Facebook didn’t pay to play, but the strategy is in line with the truths facing social media. Brands have to pay for Facebook to be effective, and even then, your messages are buried in a feed of other marketing messages. People, especially Millennials, are getting fed up with it and moving to other platforms. They’ve found haven in Instagram, Snapchat and GroupMe.

How long would you stay at a party if one person never stops talking and constantly tries to sell you things?

Converse, don’t yammer. It’s one thing to post and post and post, but that’s only one part of a conversation. The power of social media is found when it’s a two way street. Speak to people. Comment on their posts, share their stuff, and be a friend. Don’t get on a soapbox and constantly yammer on and on. That’s a great way to get ignored. Think about it: How long would you stay at a party if one person never stops talking and constantly tries to sell you things? Be a part of the conversation.

There are tons of other suggestions and strategies out there, but these five tips I find to be of great value for the smaller guys out there. Use these simple guidelines found in Chef, and you’ll be on your way to building something quite great. And go watch Chef, it’s a stellar flick.

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Could the future of restaurant brands be going up in smoke?
15/01/15 Branding & Marketing Strategy # , , , ,

Could the future of restaurant brands be going up in smoke?

It’s official; Oxford Dictionary named “vape” the word of the year. Unless you’re living under a rock, you’ve noticed these newfangled apparatuses dangling from people’s mouths emitting puffs of what looks like smoke. Vaporizers and e-cigarettes are a rapidly growing trend for smokers trying to quit and nonsmokers looking to try something new. If your first “vape” encounter happened on the street or outdoors, you probably didn’t give it a second thought, but what if it’s encountered indoors like an office setting, or while dining at a restaurant?

Vaping isn’t smoke, it’s water vapor, but the perception of “smoking” is still inherently tied to the act. When someone vapes at their desk, or a non-smoking restaurant, there is an immediate pang of exasperation. That reaction is a residual, knee-jerk effect from the years of anti-smoking initiatives that have been proselytized to the masses for decades. However, that doesn’t mean that vaping indoors should cause the same reactions or be subject to the same restrictions as actual smoking tobacco. In fact, this less harmful activity poses excellent opportunities for brands to further integrate into consumer lifestyles having positive brand impacts. That is if lawmakers don’t have their way first.

Currently there are few laws that restrict vaporizing beyond age limitations, however; the bureaucratic drums of politicos are getting louder and legislation is looming. Instead of waiting for Washington to dictate whether or not vaping should face restrictions similar to tobacco, restaurant brandsneed to address policies on the subject sooner rather than later.

… the issue on whether to allow or disallow vaping in the restaurants is wide open for interpretation leaving restaurants vulnerable to negative experiences …

I asked people in the restaurant industry about their vaping policies to see where they stood, and to gauge the industry’s level of proactive thinking. The responses I received varied responses from dodging the question outright to several stating they handled it on a case-by-case basis. Those responses indicate that the issue on whether to allow or disallow vaping in the restaurants is wide open for interpretation leaving restaurants vulnerable to negative experiences with the vape enthusiast public. Furthermore it brings to a light an opportunity for brands to think beyond basic policy.

Seemingly the biggest issue facing vaping in restaurants specifically is how the vapor can change a sensory experience for the other guests. Although many vape enthusiasts like to say there is no scent emitted from the devices, non-smokers argue otherwise. In an industry where the experience is defined primarily by taste and smell, this can cause problems for guests. There is also the question of whether or not to allow employees of the restaurant to vape on the job. Outside working hours, potential insurance issues relating to the long-term effects of vaping have already started to raise questions.

Policies should be considered for both guests and employees alike. As health experts continue to push for more scientific studies on the effects of e-cigarettes’ “second hand smoke,” some employers like UPS are already requiring an extra $150 in monthly insurance premiums1. McDonald’s currently allows employees to smoke regular and e-cigarette devices, whereas places like Starbucks completely prohibit the use of either2.

When it’s all said and done vaping could be bucketed as a bad habit like smoking making policy decisions mandatory for brands in all industries. However if legislation doesn’t come to fruition brands will find themselves faced with a big decision: either ban it all together, or leverage the vape movement to diversify and to build cultural brand assets.

Vaping doesn’t have to be a negative. In fact, there are many brands today that have equity in certain flavors that could benefit greatly from jumping on the vape movement. The obvious industry for leveraging the opportunities for olfactory gustatory branding is restaurants. As a way to spark ideas for said industry, the creative team at iris Atlanta took a stab at some ideas. Click here to checkout some potential restaurant-inspired vaporizer flavor advertisements that could smoke out the competition.

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Rise of the apptroverts
02/12/14 Branding & Marketing Strategy # , , , , , , ,

Rise of the apptroverts

Originally posted on Medium

You’ve seen them. You may even be one. They’re the people at the table whose faces are glowing from their smartphones almost completely disconnected from the world around them. While they may be disconnected from their physical space, they are simultaneously uber-connected to the entire world. These are the Apptroverted masses, and they’re more powerful than you may know.

The Apptrovert is a sect of the Millennial consumer group. If you’ve happened upon any conversation pertaining to marketing in the last few years the word “Millennial” was probably dropped more than bass hits in a techno song. Millennials have the buying power right now and brands want their money. The problem is that Millennials aren’t a group of people with the exact same interests. Sure, there are commonalities across the whole, but one of those commonalities is that Millennials strive to have their own personalities in the connected universe. That’s the source of their Apptroversion.

For Apptroverts, spending time with friends is always a good thing, but making sure everyone else in their networks know about the time spent is more important. Causing the FOMO (Fear of Missing Out) effect amongst their circle makes a statement about their status in said circle. The project a I-am-doing-awesome-stuff-my-life-is-amazing-and-the-world-must-know-about-it mentality. What’s interesting is the unbroken tether to their smartphones disconnects them from the physical world around them. At the same time, they become connected to a bigger universe with immediate clout and influence built by their connections to others.

The connection and concurrent disconnection epitomizes the merge of digital and physical experiences for brands. To translate: A brand’s retail experience must have a digital accompaniment that is greater than or equal to its physical space. That doesn’t mean marketers should create special apps for in-store visits. It also doesn’t mean physical space experiences will be come less important or obsolete. It does demand greater thought be put into how a brand’s digital and physical experience work in tandem to create a more powerful overarching engagement.

The goal with any successful brand should be to integrate into a consumer’s life. For the Apptroverts that means accentuating physical experiences with features that enable them to do a number of things.

  1. Project their experiences to their network. The Apptrovert will talk about what’s happening in real time to their digital audience. Smart brands will give them new ways to do so that inject the brand seamlessly.
  2. Build upon the physical experience in innovative ways. They aren’t completely disconnected from their physical surroundings. Something new and fresh will get them reengaged while also giving them more fuel for their social network engine. Rethink the traditional idea of physical experiences to leverage the power these Apptroverts yeild.
  3. Get them to interact with their current companions. Just like they want to experience something new in the physical space, they also want to be engaged with their companions. If brands think of new ways to infuse a digital experience with which a group can interact they will see Apptroverts turn to loyalists.

The digital world isn’t going to take over brick and mortar although some doomsday sayers continuously claim this to be the future. However, technology will continue to innovate what we all consider physical. The Apptroverts are spearheading the demand and fueling the launches of technologies that innovate in this manner. This market of early-adopters and super influencers are key to pushing into the next phase of any brand whether it be startup or existing. All hail the Apptroverted public!

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Why Olive Garden can’t be saved by branding
03/10/14 Branding & Marketing Strategy # , , , ,

Why Olive Garden can’t be saved by branding

Originally published on Branding Magazine. Read the full article here.

A few weeks ago Olive Garden experienced the beginnings of what could quickly turn into a coup. Starboard Value Partners, a firm that owns an 8.8% stake in Olive Garden’s parent company, released a 294-panel slide show on the poor performance of Darden’s Olive Garden brand. It was brutal, but undoubtedly honest. In this report the investor group viciously tore apart many of the problems that have been allegedly causing the decline of the restaurant, citing both product and branding as issues. Yet they failed to note the intrinsic relationship between the two: branding in the basic sense won’t fix a subpar product offering. Unless strategists are allowed to be actively involved with defining and changing the brand’s offering, a company is just prolonging and inevitable decline.

It’s easy to see why Starboard Value Partners is up in arms as the report points out critical issues like “salads are overfilled and regularly dressed with more than the recommended amount of dressing” and “breadsticks get cold as they sit stale on the table.” It seems to reach a pinnacle when they point out that salting pasta water, an Italian cooking basic, isn’t even a standard practice at Olive Garden. Starboard’s presentation goes further into the dynamics of the restaurant, including it’s marketing and branding practices, tearing it part limb from limb.

It’s well known that Olive Garden has been sinking over the last few years, and that brand changes were made earlier this year to stave off decline further. For a lot of failing restaurants, brand is the usually the first thing analyzed and changed. Maybe it’s because it’s relatively easier and quicker than a complete overhaul, or simply because the burden of sales is commonly thrown on the back of the marketing department. There is an underlying problem to this train of thought: Branding can’t save a business without the truth to back it up.

As we delve into the process of extrapolating key ideals, consumer focuses, need states and the multitude of other elements that go into the proper development of a brand, there is one core piece of the puzzle cast aside – the product. When it’s all stripped down to the nitty gritty, the product is what matters most. The product, and the purpose behind it, of any company is the epicenter of its existence, and too often the brand development team is left out of any key decisions regarding it.

During the discovery and distillation of the brand development process a litany of information is gathered and analyzed. The information isn’t just focused on advertising, marketing and design. It delves deep into every part of a company. With all of the information garnered and distilled in brand strategy exercises and research, the value of a restaurant’s product and potential of what it could be become quite clear. Ignoring those insights is negligent, but something operations teams often seem to do. The results can be seen in Olive Garden’s current situation. They made a half-baked attempt at altering the food, yet ran directly into overhauling the look of the brand’s identity.

Starboard’s report isn’t an amalgamation of information created out of thin air. It’s all based on market research, consumer polling, and other resources to get an in-depth understanding of the situation. Those tactics are exactly what a true brand strategist would orchestrate as they go through the brand development process. If those in charge of operations worked in tandem with teams tasked with developing a brand, the company could alter the core offering so the brand development team can convey something of substance.

My suggestion to the world of restaurant operations professionals out there is this: Work with the branding team to share the information divulged in their process, then make positive changes based on that information. Hold off on any design, marketing or “branding” work until changes are appropriately implemented. Only in that scenario can a company, restaurant or any other kind, honestly be ready for a brand facelift.

The good news for the Olive Garden is they do have some elements of their product that define the brand. Despite being blasted for their breadsticks and salads, those two items are iconic for the restaurant chain. They obviously need a bit of work on some of their menu items, but let’s give them a little bit of leeway. 2014 has been a year of positive changes for the restaurant brand from kitchen to redesign. Maybe Starboard can ease up a little bit and let things take effect. I know it’s easier said than done when staring at an ever-decreasing stock value, but rebuilding a brand to be a meaningful part of culture again takes time.

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Avoiding the big froyo freeze
10/09/14 Branding & Marketing Strategy # , , , , , ,

Avoiding the big froyo freeze

Three tips for frozen-yogurt operators to survive market saturation.

Originally published on You can read the article here.

Frozen-yogurt shops are reaching critical mass as sales and momentum start to slow down. The next obvious step in this fad is for the segment to reach its breaking point when weaker brands begin to fall away leaving only the strong to survive. Change is inevitable, but that doesn’t mean change has to be negative. Fro-yo brands with less market penetration don’t have to fail, but in order to persevere they will need to change the game in some way.

The fro-yo frenzy started with the introduction of a build-it-yourself format. That new format, mixed with a pay-by-weight pricing structure, helped the craze skyrocket exponentially. The segment’s pioneers saw quick success that lead to others jumping on board to claim their piece of the American dream.

Changing the game isn’t easy, but there are a number of directions in which these brands can grow and gain more market ownership. It will take visionary leadership and the chutzpah to take the risk, but there are opportunities within reach that are ripe for the picking. These opportunities include extending the offering; creating cobranded experiences; crafting a fresher, better story; or a combination of any of the three.

1. Extend the core offering

As it stands today, most frozen-yogurt joints sell their core product and maybe rendition of the classic milkshake. There aren’t many brands that go beyond that offering. The small, café-like experiences are poised to take on a larger offering into new day parts. Red Mango and Pinkberry are seeing success in doing this with their smoothie offering.

By adding a unique beverage lineup, a fro-yo shop turns into an actual café that opens the doors to a full day of service.

Breakfast is a rapidly growing daypart that sees large returns, and Greek yogurt is a huge market that’s untapped by many concepts out there. Besides cafés that resell Chobani or Oikos products, Red Mango seems to be hip to the trend by serving frozen Greek yogurt and regular yogurt parfaits—but even that’s not enough to tackle the breakfast daypart. With the build-it-yourself bar already setup, it only makes sense to create a build-your-own parfait offering for breakfast. Sure, different machines may be necessary, but that’s what innovation in the face of adversity requires.

With a breakfast comes the demand for beverages. The natural choice of beverages is coffee or tea. Many quick-serve restaurants have seen large jumps in revenue after adding specialty coffees to their lineup. Thanks to the likes of Starbucks and Caribou Coffee, drinking into the evening has become a lifestyle. By adding a unique beverage lineup, a fro-yo shop turns into an actual café that opens the doors to a full day of service. And that means more revenue and a point of differentiation that’s easily sold to the market.

2. Create cobranded experiences

Some concepts aren’t meant to stand on their own. Yum! Brands is known for its cobranded locations that combine a Taco Bell and KFC, Pizza Hut and Wing Street, or other brands in the portfolio. The idea is to combine forces to conquer an area where one brand would potentially poach the other. In the case of frozen yogurt, the opportunity to cobrand with another concept facing a downfall is prime.

The cupcake craze is already on the way out, but that doesn’t mean the demand has completely died. Cupcake bakeries have a great format with the ability to offer catering as a line of business. An operator could offer cupcake and fro-yo sandwiches, cupcakes topped with fresh fro-yo flavors, and other concoctions that create a new experience for consumers. Being the first of its kind would spark a blaze of interest all built on two fads that still have merit. The new brand would pull market share from both formats, frozen yogurt and cupcakes, while technically being first-to-market.

3. Craft a fresher, better story

Most frozen yogurt shops all have the same look. If you close your eyes you can picture it easily: White plastic accouterments mixed with bright, vibrantly colored tiles. The logo is probably a mix of greens, oranges, and pinks. The story is one based on a healthier dessert with fruit toppings sitting next to sugary candy sweets.

A brand’s story that’s honest and legitimate draws in passionate fans. Think of TOMS shoes and Chipotle: Both brands have embraced a bigger picture beyond their offering and have been rewarded with extremely loyal, raving fans. In the frozen-yogurt world, no brand has really done more than peddle their dessert in a run-of-the-mill interior experience.

The good news is that stagnation of story and experience leaves the door wide open for a game changer. What if the product was more natural or organic? What if a brand told the story of a cow to creamery journey much like Chipotle does for the world of burritos? What if a frozen-yogurt brand tied itself to a philanthropic movement entirely? People respond to a higher purpose that aligns with the brands values and vision.

It’s an inevitability that the frozen-yogurt world will change. How current fro-yo brands approach this change will determine the viability of their business. By taking a strategic look at their offering, opportunities and brand story, smart brands can find a way to change the game and avoid failure.

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The fresh food movement could be deadly for restaurants
06/08/14 Branding & Marketing Strategy # , , , , , ,

The fresh food movement could be deadly for restaurants

Originally published on

Brands That Don’t Adapt to New Consumer Demands Could Suffer

Steep discount promotions, décor upgrades and a few new menu options aren’t enough for restaurant chains confronting growing demand for unprocessed, higher-quality food. Consumers’ demand for fresher food and a unique brand experience continues to grow rapidly. New restaurant brands are popping up everywhere waving the fresh-food flag, but as this movement invigorates the masses it could also be destroying restaurant brands that fail to adapt to new demands.

TGI Fridays took a lot of heat a few weeks ago for its latest ploy: endless appetizers for $10. One headline predicted the promotion would “destroy” the restaurant. Although the outcome remains to be seen, the basis of the prediction is that TGI Fridays seems to have lowered the quality of its food and service over the years. The promotion is just another example of the chain’s lack of dedication to a better experience in line with market demand. Instead of pushing a better product, the brand continues to push a lower price.

Case in point: As a reaction to poor performance, Olive Garden started rejuvenating its brand earlier this year. It announced “the most significant evolution in the restaurant’s history,” and added new ingredients like polenta, capers and pistachio-crusted truffles as new items intended to increase the culinary quality of its food. The chain continued its push toward a renaissance more recently in the form of a new brand identity rolled out across brand touch points and new architectural and interior designs seen in two concept locations in Florida. But it continues to face problems even though it’s stepped up its brand identity and food offering, because it’s done little to address Olive Garden’s stigma for low-quality, processed food and the story around it.

What’s driving this fresh-food frenzy? For the consumer, eating healthier and fresher isn’t solely about trying to lose a few pounds. The long-tail effect of the farm-to-table trend has left consumers wanting to know the source of their food, how it’s made and the story of its journey. It isn’t as much about actual health as it is about the quality and “realness” of the food they’re eating. Coupled with the growing popularity of food-related TV programming, the American palette is expanding with the desire for broader, more sophisticated flavor profiles. Additionally, better understanding of the negative effects on the body from eating processed foods over the long-term has left consumers shunning anything less than fresh.

The fresh food movement is clearing the path for restaurants that focus on bringing better-quality ingredients, more responsible sourcing and new flavors to market. Brands like True Food Kitchen are usurping the once-loved casual restaurant brands with their focus on better, fresher-quality food that’s healthier than deep-fried bar standards doused in sauce. The restaurant goes beyond the food and includes the consumer in its story to garner participation in its brand. Although the food comes at a higher price point, people choose the brand with which they connect on multiple levels: fresh food and a story they can get behind.

Even in the far reaches of the U.S., the healthy food movement is dominating once-popular establishments that serve lower-quality food. Hawaii’s Grylt, a restaurant touting “good food that’s good for you,” is opening a fourth location, continuing its push against lesser-quality restaurant brands. The concept of offering fresh-grilled food and a story built on a better product fulfills the needs of tourists and Hawaiians alike who are into diets like paleo and fitness trends like cross-fit. As a result, Grylt continues to successfully strip market share from the island’s less-than-fresh counterparts who are content to slop together foods with a discount price tag.

The moves toward fresher, higher-quality and more culinary-focused offerings are not a fad. Rather, they are growing rapidly alongside other healthy-living choices, and are successfully threatening the traditional restaurant brands that haven’t kept up with the demands of the market. Fresh is no longer a point of differentiation — it’s now a consumer demand. As “fresh food” inches ever closer to parity, the only question that brands must answer will be: What’s the brand story?

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What’s causing TGI Fridays downfall?
10/07/14 Branding & Marketing Strategy # , , , , ,

What’s causing TGI Fridays downfall?

This article was posted to LinkedIn by request from their team, you can read it on that platform here.

Yesterday I had the honor of speaking with Alexander Kaufman from the Huffington Post about TGI Friday’s new promotion (AYCE Appetizers for $10) and the ramifications of it on their brand.  The article covers a lot of my opinions which were naturally confirmed by other restaurant experts, but I wanted to take the time to dig a little deeper.

For those that don’t know, TGI Friday’s launched a new, aggressive promotion where customers can get all the appetizers they can eat for only $10. It’s analogous to the slimy used car salesman. TGI Friday’s is pandering, peddling and pushing it’s low quality food at any cost. “What’s it gonna take to get you into an appetizer today?!” They might as well put a inflatable flailing arms guy out front of every location.

Although the promotion seems like it’s in the same vein as other promotions they’ve run in the past* this one seems more like a last ditch effort to stave off the inevitable: TGI Friday’s is failing. There are a number of drivers pushing towards this inevitable decline:

  1. They’re known for processed and frozen foods that aren’t great and definitely not healthy
  2. Their atmosphere is no longer unique and devoid of the attitude it once had
  3. Run on a business/operations model to which the market no longer responds

We all grew up eating at Casual FSRs whether it’s an Olive Garden, Applebee’s or Ruby Tuesday. These approachable restaurants touting fun-times and new experiences popped up all over the place decades ago. Their rapid growth could be attributed to a multitude to their new dining experiences, but that would only take a restaurant so far. The main reason places like Friday’s were about to replicate their concepts was the creation of processes that controlled consistency from location to location.

You could go to a Friday’s in New York and have the same experience you’d have in Florida. The food would be the same, the people, atmosphere, and so on. This assembly line approach to creating a restaurant experience was the foundation for their rapid growth. This strong backbone continues to keep things running, but a few recent trends have taken root and they’re directly chopping away at the core of the Friday’s model.

Farm-to-table craze hit the US market and with it came an ever-growing awareness around fresh ingredients and responsibly grown produce. Processed foods are now constantly demonized, and the rush towards eating better continues to skyrocket. Eating “healthy” isn’t about dieting any longer. It’s about eating fresher across the board and taking an acute interest in how animals are raised, how food is grown, and the effects of additives on the human body. Terms like “all natural”, “locally sourced” and “responsibly grown” are now apart of our vernacular.

People don’t want processed foods. They don’t want to eat frozen garbage that’s dropped in a fryer, or a bag of pasta heated in a boiling pot of water. It doesn’t matter how cheap you make it. That pushes the quality further into the gutter in the consumer’s mind. TGI Friday’s compounds their dedication to frozen, non-fresh foods by selling said food in a freezer at your local grocery store.

The second reason for the downfall of brand giants like Friday’s is their dining experience is worn out. The atmosphere of TGI Friday’s was always a zany, high energy, fun-time spot. Jokes about the amount of flare worn even made it into cult films like Office Space. It was a spot to go in the neighborhood because the other spots were rundown independent bars that were smoky, dingy and depressing. Casual FSRs brought a clean spot with a great vibe and changed the game.

However, with growth comes dilution of the restaurant’s brand. TGI Friday’s can’t be a neighborhood spot because neighborhoods have attitude, character and personalities that are different from anywhere else. TGI Friday’s is the exact same at every location. It’s been the same for decades. Nothing has changed which means we’ve all been there, done that.

In order to stay interesting and keep new trials and loyalty at a high, you have to grow and reconfigure the brand naturally. This means creating new ideas that reinvigorate the experience and interrupt the norm customer have come to expect. TGI Friday’s is the same today as it was yesterday and the only changes are the new promotions for cheap food.

Finally, the third reason Casual FSRs are declining and failing can be attributed directly to the Fast Casual movement. Independents and new small chains built on the fast casual format have sprung up with amazing atmospheres Their experiences have new character and authentic personality. These guys are fulfilling a desire in the market for higher quality food at a good price. Most Casual FSRs can’t offer the same.

The fast casual format alone has eliminated the need or desire for a full service casual experience. New fast casuals serve craft beers, craft cocktails and amazing food. They meet the markets demands for fresher ingredients and more sophisticated flavor profiles. What’s more is this format can keep prices low on the food because there isn’t the need for a large staff to run the ship. People aren’t concerned with having someone wait on their table. In a fast casual format the food is brought to you and you’re left in peace to enjoy the meal which is all most people ever wanted anyway. Save the waiters for a night out at a fine dining restaurant.

The very things that constructed the backbone of casual FSRs behemoths are exactly the things crushing them. This traditional model is dying quicker and quicker. Unfortunately, the only way these slow casual restaurants will change the inevitable is with a full overhaul of the business model, operations and food. It doesn’t look like any of them are even considering it.

What are your thoughts on the promotion and the future of TGI Friday’s and/or the slow casual restaurant model?

* – TGI Fridays ran a promotion pushing 2 for $20 in 2012.

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Don’t let Facebook tank your marketing
10/05/14 Branding & Marketing Strategy , In the press # , , , , , , ,

Don’t let Facebook tank your marketing

Originally published on FSR. Read the article on their site.

For a few years, we marketer-folks were on our soapboxes touting the amazing opportunities Facebook offered restaurants, especially start-ups and mom-and-pop cafes. You’d catch us saying, “It’s where the people are,” “They want to hear from you,” “It gets results,” and—the big one—“It’s free!” Who could say no to that? Slowly but surely, restaurants jumped on board, and they realized that for only a few bucks they could build their following, quickly accumulating a large group of “likes.” Things were good. It didn’t cost too much money, if anything at all.

Then this old adage reared its ugly head: Nothing in life is free. You have to pay to play.

Facebook recently changed the algorithm that determines how content is displayed to its one billion-plus users. Now your content won’t reach most of your fans unless you pay money to “boost” each post. Zing! There’s the newfangled catch: You have to pay to play.

With this change to the way Facebook displays a page’s posts, it has effectively demolished its usefulness to small businesses. Start-up brands and mom-and-pop restaurants run on razor-thin budgets. Requiring them to pay for building a fan base, then asking more for fan engagement on every post, is absurd.

Think of it like this: with the average suggested boost budget being around $10, a restaurant could easily drop $3000 each month in reaching the fans who want to hear from the restaurant. For that kind of money, I think a restaurant could be doing a lot of other things that get more attention and put “butts in seats.”

Without Facebook, what can we do?!

It’s time to “Tumble, Tweet, and ‘Gram.” Tumblr, Twitter, and Instagram have amassed a following, but have been underused because of Facebook’s powerful reach. With that reach now being eliminated, these newer social media platforms will take you out of the din of the Facebook desert and give your marketing a little bit more boost. They’ve proven effective, although at a smaller scale than Facebook so far, and they continue to grow. That means they’re getting more and more attention from the market, which will help your messages be heard. They’ve sat in Facebook’s shadow for too long. Now is the time to jump on board.

Tumblr. 13 percent of Internet users between the ages of 18-29 use Tumblr1. With Yahoo’s purchase of Tumblr, this platform has exploded. Tumblr has reformatted its original direction. It’s now basically a website creation tool with a built-in way for fans to receive updates. Think of it like this: it’s a completely customizable Facebook page, with a network of easily accessible fans. When you post new content to your Tumblr “website,” people can repost it, comment on it, or “heart” it—akin to “liking” a status on Facebook. They can also follow your brand so they’re always in the know about new posts, for free. It’s full social engagement in an space that’s connected to a network, but branded for your restaurant experience.

Twitter. 18 percent of all Internet users are using Twitter2. With the addition of pictures, videos, and a new profile layout that is unmistakably Facebook-inspired, Twitter is upping the ante. It keeps things simple with the status updates (no more than 144 characters), but it’s effective. Your followers will see everything you post, and you can even advertise to build fan engagement.

Instagram. 17 percent of Internet users are on Instagram2. Instagram boils down one powerful feature that Facebook has: Pictures. Posting images of your food, your employees having fun, your customers, and other brand-charged images that make your restaurant real and human can help build fan engagement and buzz. You can tag other Instagram users to help create community, as well.

Of course, each of these social media platforms pale in comparison to Facebook’s usage (two-thirds of Internet users.) Consider these two points, however: 1) What good is your marketing if it falls on deaf ears? And 2) if they’re really fans of yours, they’ll find you in other places. In Facebook’s case, your marketing isn’t even reaching those “deaf ears.” You’re better off starting to use new platforms with an engaged audience who will actually receive your brilliant transmissions. Also, don’t you think it’s better to have a handful of actively interested audience than a mass of uninterested followers who are one post away from being annoyed by your brand?

Finally, it’s good to remember that beyond social media is a world of online opportunities for those who can think outside the proverbial box. Successful marketing should be thought of as a campaign that spans across many media outlets, not just one “silver bullet” expected to work wonders. Restaurant brands that put some creative thought and a reasonable marketing budget behind good ideas will be the ones that get the attention and the inevitable traffic that comes along with good marketing.

Are you using Tumblr, Twitter, or Instagram? What’s working for you and your restaurant brand?

  1. Pew Research Center’s Internet & American Life Project Post-Election Survey, November 14-December 09, 2012. N=1,802 internet users. Interviews were conducted in English and Spanish and on landline and cell phones. Margin of error is +/- 2.6 percentage points for results based on internet users.
  2. Pew Research Center’s Internet Project Library Survey, July 18 – September 30, 2013. N=5,112 internet users ages 18+. Interviews were conducted in English and Spanish and on landline and cell phones. Margin of error is +/- 1.6 percentage points for results based on internet users.
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