Featured Article in QSR Magazine: The New Rules for Restaurant Naming
07/01/17 In the press # , , , , , , , , ,

Featured Article in QSR Magazine: The New Rules for Restaurant Naming

Our principal and creative director, Joseph Szala, authored an article focused on successfully naming a restaurant. It starts with the passion driving the restaurant forward. Passion deeper than “good food, good service” table stakes. QSR Magazine picked up the article as an Outside Insights feature. Read it here.

Although published in QSR Magazine, the foundations for name remain relevant for other restaurant formats including Full Service (FSR), Fast Casuals, Casual Dining, and others. Furthermore, the beverage industry from craft beer to spirits and wine can glean the basics of good brand strategy and naming from the article.

Here are some quick quotes to spark your interest:

 

…you’re probably sitting in a room with a committee throwing the proverbial spaghetti on the wall and hoping that something sticks. Design by committee usually ends in a frustratingly boring result. When you have to appease multiple personalities with varying opinions the common result is vanilla.

The strongest brand names are bolstered by detailed, visceral meaning beyond product and service. In today’s world, “good product, good service,” are tablestakes and bottom line expectations. They’re not differentiators by any stretch.

 

Read the full article by Joseph on QSR Magazine’s website »

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Consumer connections are the key to impactful restaurant marketing
17/03/15 Uncategorized # , , ,

Consumer connections are the key to impactful restaurant 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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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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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 QSRMagazine.com. 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 Adage.com

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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Joseph chimes in on Friday’s “Endless Appetizers” for Huffington Post
09/07/14 In the press # , , , , , ,

Joseph chimes in on Friday’s “Endless Appetizers” for Huffington Post

TGI Fridays launched their controversial Endless Appetizers promotion in what looked to be a desperate effort to boost sales. Alexander Kaufman reached out to me to get my opinion on what this means for the brand and how it can negatively affect it. My comments were right beside notable brand strategists like Aaron Allen and TGI Friday’s CMO, Brian Gies. The full article is reposted below, and you can read it on the Huffington Post website. The conversation continued on Linked In after I was asked to embellish by LinkedIn staff.

TGI Fridays is so hungry for new customers that it’s giving food away.

The chain restaurant launched an all-you-can-eat deal on Monday, offering endless helpings of any one appetizer — potato skins, mozzarella sticks, spinach dip and other options — for $10 per person. The promotion is meant to draw new customers, and it’s getting heaps of press coverage of the sort not seen since the chain’s 1990s heyday.

Yet analysts say the endless apps deal is basically Fridays’ swan song, a last-ditch move that ultimately cheapens the company’s brand. The apps may be endless, but Americans’ desire to visit a so-called “casual dining” chain restaurant is just about over.

“In the short term, [Fridays] will definitely have more traffic, but in the long term it damages their plan and will really destroy them,” said Aaron Allen, founder of Aaron Allen & Associates, a restaurant industry consulting firm. “It’s the signal of a desperate brand.”

David Letterman devoted the Top 10 segment on his show Monday to the promotion.

Sales nosedived at casual chain restaurants during the recession, sending once-popular eateries like Bennigan’s and Friendly’s into bankruptcy. Even as the economy has recovered, most of these restaurants have struggled to regain customers. Millennials want fresh, cheap fastish food from chains like Panera and Chipotle. The Mexican chain’s revenue more than doubled to $3.2 billion from 2009 to 2013. The days of young “singles” flocking to TGI Fridays happy hours are long over.

Even Brian Gies, Fridays’ chief marketing officer in the U.S., said the company was stuck in a “combo-meal malaise” and admitted it needed to adapt to modern tastes.

“There are no silver bullets in this business,” Gies said in an interview with The Huffington Post. “The economy and consumer behavior are constantly changing, you’ve got to change with it.”

Sales are anemic at the 49-year-old company, which has more than 900 restaurants in 60 countries. The chain was sold in May by its longtime owner, hospitality firm Carlson Restaurant Inc., to two private equity firms for upward of $800 million.

Annual revenue at company-owned stores dropped 2 percent to $1.1 billion in 2013, according to numbers shown to HuffPost by PrivCo, a financial data provider on privately held companies. Including franchisees, sales revenue hovered at $2.7 billion last year, the same as the year before.

Gies declined to comment on those figures.

The “endless appetizers” promotion, which runs until Aug. 24, may eat into sales. But for the restaurant that claims to have popularized the term “happy hour” and the Long Island Iced Tea, the real money-maker may be alcohol.

“They’re probably hoping they can make it up on drinks,” said Joel Cohen, a restaurant marketing expert.

But a quick boom in booze sales may just further erode the struggling brand.

“If they’re just up-selling the alcohol, the promotion just looks like a ploy,” said Joseph Szala, a restaurant branding expert at the marketing firm Iris Worldwide.”They’re saying, ‘We’ll do anything to get you into a Fridays for a meal’ — it’s too kitschy, too car sales-y. It’s low class.”

To survive, Fridays may have to raise prices, Allen said.

“That’s the only way you can compete,” he said. “A casual dining restaurant can never be as casual and as fast and convenient as a fast-casual one.”

Or it can jazz up its menu. Sure, Gies said the mozzarella sticks now include asiago cheese and a dusting of parmesan. And, yeah, the potato skins have more cheese and are “more potato-y,” he said. But, according to Jeff Fromm, an advertising consultant at Barkley who co-authored the book Marketing to Millennials, the key to attracting the coveted 20-something consumers Fridays is losing to fast-casual chains is offering some culinary pizzazz.

“They’re going to need to look at creating experiences — creating flavor adventures,” Fromm said. “Less uniqueness means bigger problems for Fridays.”

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