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Restaurant Branding — Recipes for failure and success

BNBranding logoAt what point does a trendy new restaurant become an iconic brand? And when do all the branding efforts under the sun produce nothing but another shuttered dining establishment?

The restaurant business is littered with cases of meteoric success and dramatic failure. It’s an inherently volatile business. This is the story of several competing restaurants in a small but rapidly-growing market. It’s a story of restaurant branding success — and failure  — that any business owner can learn from.

Prior to 2000, the culinary scene in Bend wasn’t much to write home about. Some would say, non existent. So when Merenda opened in 2002 it generated tons of buzz.

Restaurant Branding BNBrandingAs the Bend Bulletin reported, “Chef Jody Denton pioneered a renaissance in fine dining in Central Oregon.”

But the Merenda brand wasn’t about fine dining. It was about partying. It was a loud place in downtown Bend where large groups would gather and drink generously from an outstanding wine list and a good assortment of adult beverages. Not great for a quiet dinner date.

The vibe was more urban — the energy level more electric — than anything previously found in Bend. Many nights you couldn’t hear yourself think, and the bar scene at Merenda became a notorious pick-up joint for older divorcees.

Meanwhile, across town in a nondescript location next to a car dealership, a restaurant called Zydeco quietly began to build a loyal following. The contrast was dramatic.

The first, most fundamental element of any restaurant braning effort is the name.

So let’s compare… What a great name:”Zydeco.”

It’s fantastically memorable with positive associations of fun in New Orleans. It’s authentic. Zydeco served delicious cajun cuisine, which was certainly unique for this town. It’s also an aspirational name that the restaurant has grown into over the last 15 years.

waste in advertising - BNBranding's Brand Insight BlogOn the other hand, “Merenda” just didn’t work as well. It sounds nice and has an elegant, upscale ring to it, but it’s so much softer than the product and the experience. The name didn’t fit the vibe and the location. Plus, if you want to get nit-picky, “Merenda” translates to “snack” in Italian. But it was not an Italian restaurant.

Trendiness seldom translates into a lasting brand.  

Many of Merenda’s customers were only there because it was THE place to see and be seen. It was a superficial relationship, not a genuine bond. Success by association. When new restaurants like Zydeco opened, the crowds thinned out at Merenda.

At Zydeco, it was more than that… It was the service, the friendly, family-owned vibe, and the overall, everyday quality that set it apart. It was upscale, but accessible. Popular but not trendy. It wasn’t trying to be cool, but it was. And still is.

Trendiness is a common problem in restaurant branding, fashion and high tech. The next big thing or hot spot is always right around the corner. So successful brand managers have to find ways to stay relevant with their past customers, or become relevant to a whole new group.

BNBranding use long copy to be authenticRelevance, differentiation and credibility. Those are the three ingredients of restaurant branding success.

After five years Chef Denton got distracted. Just when Merenda neeed a little extra attention he opened another restaurant less than a block away. And his place called Deep never got above water.

Brands need constant attention.

This seems like a no-brainer, but many people dream of having a business that runs on autopilot and generates an endless flow of effortless revenue. That doesn’t work in any industry, much less the restaurant business.

You have to mind the store.

In 2005 Cornell University published a seminal study on why restaurants fail. One of the surprising contributors was simply a lack of attention, time and effort by the owners.

“Failure seemed to stem from an inability or unwillingness to give the business sufficient attention… The immense time commitment was mentioned by all of the survey respondents who had failed.”

restaurant brandingAt Deep, Denton was determined to create something completely different. As he told The Bulletin: “That’s been kind of my business model: finding what Bend doesn’t have and filling that void. I’ve always enjoyed the environment of a sushi bar. It’s always been something appealing, both from the restaurant’s and the chef’s standpoint.”

What he failed to consider was how much attention his other brand required. He was spread too thin and his upscale sushi place was ahead of its time.

Differentiation doesn’t guarantee success in restaurant branding.

Being different from the competition is certainly important, but it’s not everything. Tiny morsels of Kobe beef served on a hot rock for eight dollars a bite… That’s different! “Angry Lobster,” Monkfish paté, grilled yuzu and marinated, chopped maguro tataki were all impressively different, but not appealing enough to inspire repeat business by a large group of people in a relatively small market.

Bottom line: Deep was a high-end sushi place in a meat and potato town.

All successful brands have a clear, well-defined concept that goes beyond the product.

As I have said in previous posts, if you want to build an iconic brand, first own an idea. The Cornell study proved that clarity of concept is essential to restaurant success.

“Perhaps the key finding was the focus on a clear concept that drives all activities… Successful restaurant owners all had a well-defined concept which encompassed an operating philosophy and business operation issues. Failed owners, when asked about their concept, discussed only their food product.”

In other words, successful restaurants have core brand concepts that go beyond just the food.

Denton certainly had vision beyond food for both his restaurants. But the concepts behind Merenda and Deep were based more on Denton’s past experience and personal preference than on the realities of the local market.

There’s an old saying… “If you want to live with the classes, sell to the masses.”

In Denton’s case, his restaurants served the classes. His high-end brands only resonated with a small segment of the population, and he didn’t reinvent Merenda when he needed to.

In the end, Denton’s concept for Merenda was not clear enough to sustain the business over the long haul. (Being first in the market isn’t a sustainable brand strategy for a single restaurant.) And the concept for Deep never had a chance. So both restaurants were shuttered and his investors came away empty handed.

Eventually, Merenda reopened under a new name with a new owner. “800 Wall” never created the buzz of the original, and it’s now cruising along, probably doing fine in the summer, but not exactly inspiring loyalty or write-ups in Gourmet Magazine.

Zydeco, on the other hand, has grown and evolved. When they moved into a larger, fancier location downtown they bought a loyal following with them. It’s now more popular than ever, despite the fact that new restaurants keep popping up around town.

For more on brand strategy, try this post.

If you want help with your restaurant branding, call me.

BNBranding's Brand Insight Blog

6 classic positioning strategy

Positioning — It’s not what you SAY. It’s what they THINK.

BNBranding logoIn the 1970’s Al Ries and Jack Trout popularized the concept of positioning strategy. Since then, they’ve written dozens of spin-off books, including Focus, The Immutable Laws of Marketing, Bottom Up Marketing, and even Re-Positioning.

positioning strategyStill, you could have a roomful of MBA’s and no two would agree on what positioning really means. Many people can’t even decide if the word is an active verb or a proper noun.

Most people think of positioning as a simple step ladder. The cheapest, lowest-end products are “positioned” at the bottom of the ladder, and the best, most expensive products are on the top shelf, if you will.

But positioning has little to do with real price or quality. Instead, it’s all about perception.

The whole concept of positioning is based on the simple fact that we form opinions about products and companies based on our own perception. These opinions are influenced by all sorts of things… word of mouth, personal experience, individual prejudices, blogs, the marketing efforts of the brand in question and a hundred other factors.

In our own minds we make some pretty broad — and often rash — assumptions about things. Call it consumer bigotry if you want to. The fact is, we pigeon hole companies and products the same way we pigeon hole political candidates.

As marketers, our goal is to tap into these existing perceptions and use them to our advantage.

Here’s a classic example. Back in 1968, before the term positioning was ever invented, the makers of 7-Up scored a huge coup in the soft drink market.

Taste tests and other forms of consumer research revealed that people saw 7-Up as a refreshing alternative to colas. Respondents said it flat out… “it’s a nice change from all the cola I’ve been drinking.”

So the 7-Up executives decided to market the drink as the alternative to cola. It was a no-brainer, really. They simply took the existing perception in the marketplace and turned it into their strategy.

Like all good positioning strategies, 7Up’s was simple and almost painfully obvious. Once the executives at 7-Up knew what consumers were thinking, there was no other way to go.

classic positioning strategyThe creative execution of the strategy, however, was not so obvious. J. Walter Thompson’s simple two-word slogan “The UnCola” said it all. Brilliant! The campaign gave the product a personality, cemented the idea in our collective consciousness, and assured 7Up a place in advertising history.

From a positioning standpoint this strategy worked remarkably well for several reasons. First, it didn’t attempt to change anyone’s perception. It simply leveraged the existing public opinion.

Secondly, it effectively repositioned the competition. Without slamming them, 7-Up lumped Coke, Pepsi and RC all together in a single boring category of colas.

classic positioning strategyFinally, the new strategy made 7Up relevant to the young people who account for a large portion of soft drink sales. The campaign tapped into the prevalent anti-establishment mind set of the late 60’s. It actively encouraged defiance against the cola establishment and portrayed 7-Up as a symbol of dissent. The entire campaign summarized the popular values of the public and catapulted 7-Up into the position as the third leading soft drink in America.

While it is possible to build a positioning strategy around images alone, it’s usually a few simple words like “The Uncola” that solidify things in the consumer’s mind. Because you don’t “position” a product, you communicate its position.

“Just Do It” communicates Nike’s position as a brand of everyday athletes. “Pizza Pizza” is a fun way to communicate Little Ceasar’s low-price strategy. “Avis, we try harder” communicated the benefit of being number two in the rental car business.

On the other hand, many automobile companies have struggled with their positioning strategy. Oldsmobile, the now defunct GM brand, is a good example.

automotive marketing positioning strategyIn its last 14 years, Oldsmobile floated no fewer than ten different slogans. Here’s a few of the real gems:

“Olds Quality. Feel it.”

“Demand Better.”

“Look what happens when you demand better.”

“Defy Convention.”

“It knows the road.”

Ironically, the slogan that’s most memorable is the only one that even hints at the reality of Oldsmobile’s perception with American car buyers. “This is not your father’s Olds” used the old, fuddy-duddy perception of Oldsmobile and spun it in a positive way. Maybe if they’d have stuck with it for more than a year, the brand would still be alive today.

You wonder what kind of research Cadillac executives did that led them to believe they could compete with Honda and Toyota in the small car market. The Cimmeron failed miserably back in the 80’s. Then they’re tried again in the 90’s with Caterra, “The Caddi that zigs.”  Nobody believed that!

Now they’re trying to compete against BMW, Audi and Mercedez. GM finally got the product right with the CTS, but it’s still a classic case of force-feeding a product into a position in the market. Cadillac as a sports car just does not compute with the American public. It goes against everything Cadillac has ever stood for. The world’s biggest, most luxurious SUV is one thing, but we’ll never buy the concept of a small, sporty Cadillac.

On the same vein, Porsche is off track trying to compete in the SUV market. “The Porsche of SUV’s”  has a nice ring to it, but it will never really resonate with the public that sees Porsche as a rich-man’s sports car. What’s next, Chateaubriand at McDonald’s?

There’s an important distinction to be made here between niche marketing and positioning. Cadillac can decide to focus on the luxury sports car niche and can build a car specifically for that purpose. But that does not mean the product will ever be perceived that way in the minds of the consumer. The problem is, Audi and BMW already occupy that space in the consumer’s mind.

positioning strategy BNBranding

Here’s another trap that many companies fall into: They mistake their mission statement for a positioning strategy.

Fortune-500 companies miss the boat all the time on this. There’s a giant health care provider that recently formed an internal committee to study the “position” of the company and draft a “positioning strategy.” What they came up with was a mission statement at best.

But your mission — your statement of purpose — may have nothing to do with your position in the market place. And vice versa.

A mission statement is concocted by a committee and exists in corporate brochures, annual reports, and press releases. A positioning statement is formed in the consumer’s mind. A mission statement is the rose-colored view of your company. A positioning statement is the gritty, 16mm view.

No doubt, the semantics of positioning and positioning strategy can get confusing. But if you want to hedge your bets, think of it this way:

Positioning is not something you do, it’s something that happens. You can choose a narrow market niche, devise a new pricing strategy and launch a giant ad campaign that, together, may affect people’s perception of you. But you can’t technically “position” anything.

Want more classic positioning advice? Read this post.

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