At 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.
As 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.
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.
On 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.
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.”
At 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.
By John Furgurson
Ski area managers live and die by the whims of Mother Nature. Already this winter high winds and heavy ice have toppled trees and wrecked havoc at Mt. Bachelor. Flooded roads cut access to Crystal Mountain. A lift tower at Whistler snapped. A landslide took out a lift at Snoqualmie Pass. And some poor guy at Vail found himself hanging upside down and naked from a chairlift.
So how do you keep your customers happy through all the drama and mayhem? How do you handle those days that don’t qualify for the chamber of commerce brochure? As Mt. Bachelor has discovered, it’s a matter of managing expectations by educating skiers about mountain operations and reporting the truth in a timely, credible manner. A significant departure from the industry norm.
Ten years ago they could get away with little white lies on the morning ski report. But now cell phones make it hard to pull one over on anyone. The lift ride is plenty of time for skiers to Twitter or send simple, pointed text messages to their friends down in town that either confirm or deny the morning report.
“Is sucks, stay home.” “It’s Epic. Get up here.” “Fogged in. Can’t see two feet.” With minute-by-minute updates like that, sugar-coated reports from the marketing department just don’t cut it any more.
Last season Mt. Bachelor suffered a string of PR problems… Unexplained lift closures, safety violations and some questionable policy decisions by the new parent company caused a lot of grumbling in the skiing community. And quite frankly, the Mt. Bachelor brand took a hit. For the first season in 30 years, it slipped to # 2 among Oregon’s ski areas.
So this year a new management team is working hard to improve the overall experience, and that starts by managing expectations.
From what I’ve seen so far, they’re using their website pretty effectively to paint a realistic picture of what it takes to operate a modern ski area on a 9,000-foot Pacific Northwest Volcano. And it’s a lot harder than I ever imagined.
Since the latest storm, they’ve been uploading videos that show what the lift crews are faced with. It’s harder to complain about a lift not opening promptly on time when you’ve seen the manual labor required to do the job… Time lapse photography of an employee climbing up a 40-foot lift tower, tentatively chipping away at ice two feet thick. Loggers and snow-cat drivers working together to clear 60-foot fir trees from the middle of a run. That’s powerful stuff that I haven’t seen on any other web site or in any other industry.
The daily conditions report has also improved dramatically. It’s now updated several times every morning, and it’s written in a first-person, man-on-the-slopes tone. Not only that, it’s refreshingly truthful. Last week, in the midst of the worst ice storm in 30 years, the author said, “I walked around the base area, and it’s not the kind of day you don’t want to set foot outside. It’s raining hard and it’s below freezing.”
And I love this one from a day in early December when everyone was still praying for the season’s first big dump: “We had nine inches overnight, with high winds. It’s deep in some places, and other spots look just like they did two days ago.”
Now that’s authentic!
The amusement park industry should take note. There’s nothing worse than arriving at a park, with your kids all jacked-up and ready for the latest, greatest roller coaster, only to find the ride closed for some unknown reason.
The golf industry would also benefit from such frank assessments. A detailed superintendant’s report would be tremendously useful in a country club environment where guys have been known to complain about the fairways being TOO perfect. If you show members all the work that goes into keeping all 18 greens rolling at 11 on the stimpmeter, they might not complain as much about miniscule variations in the height of the rough.
But honesty isn’t about shutting up your biggest critics. It’s about cementing a relationship with your best customers and maintaining the goodwill of your brand. Because every time you leave out important information, fudge a bit in a press release, or overstate a marketing claim, you’re chipping away at your credibility. Like ice on a lift tower, eventually it’ll all come crashing down on your head.
Curiousity got the best of you? See the unlikely lift ride here:
The top guns of the American auto industry parked their private jets, piled into their big, luxury hybreds, and headed back to Washington last week. The goal: 50 billion dollars in loans, credit and other forms of bailout money. The second installment of what one reporter called, “a long term payment plan in $35 billion installments.”
There’s no doubt GM’s failure would a terrible economic blow. Those jobs would be sorely missed, but would anyone miss the mediocre brands that GM’s been consistently producing for the last 35 years?
I don’t think so. Other than some loyal Chevy truck fans, consumers won’t miss a beat.
GM’s business problems are far reaching and complex. The Wall Street Journal says “it’s a bloated organization with too many dealers and too many factories producing too many cars for the marketplace.” (GM has 7000 dealers in the U.S. Toyota outsells them with just 1500.) The company is burning through cash faster than a Suburban sucks gas — $75 million a day, according to one account. Turning that land yacht around is is going to be much harder than anyone’s predicting. As one consultant said… “Even with a generous series of government loans, GM is likely to go bankrupt within the next two years.”
Let’s face it. GM has been losing ground slowly but surely since muscle cars were killed by the oil embargo of the 1970’s. If congress looks at the situation from a marketing standpoint, they wouldn’t cough up a dime.
According to Automobile magazine, “it’s been 50 years since GM built a car that was the standard of the industry in any category.” Overall, GM products have been poor in all respects, from design and driveability to safety and fuel efficiency.
I believe that GM’s quality issues and their current financial crisis is a direct reflection Alfred P. Sloan’s famous, flawed strategy of “a car for every purse and purpose.” Sorry, but quantity over quality just doesn’t work in the modern automotive industry.
GM’s business model for the past 30 years has been built around the assumption that they can keep making money off products that are unremarkable, at best. But even when you’re as big as GM, you can’t be all things to all people. Over time, that lack of focus is going to kill you.
Look at GM’s track record in the small-car market. First they had the Chevette and the notorious Vega, a car reknown for being the first aluminum block engine ever produced… (not exactly the type of innovation that propels a company into a new era.)
While Honda, Toyota and Nissan were dominating that market in the 80’s, GM introduced The X-cars… the Citation, Omega, Phoenix and Skylark. Yikes! Those weren’t economy cars, they were just awful, underpowered sedans.
GM fumbled around for 20 years trying to build a small car under the wrong brand: Cadillac. Remember the Cimmeron? It’s on Time Magazine’s list of the worst cars ever built. And the Catera, “the caddy that zigs.” The advertising was unbelievable and the product, unbelievably bad. For consumers, a small, sporty Cadillac just doesn’t compute.
Then there was Saturn, GM’s great hope of 1990. Nothing in the history of GM could match the enormity of this brand’s launch. They built a state-of-the-art manufacturing plant in Springhill Tennessee. They opened a new dealer network and adopted innovative new marketing and customer service programs, including a policy of “no haggle pricing.” To their credit, they did everything differently in order to compete with the Japanese.
Despite the plastic body panels, Saturn succeeded for a while. The cars were affordable, and they even won some industry accolades in the subcompact category. Unfortunately, GM starved that division of cash, kept them from launching new products for 10 years, and now is contemplating a shutdown of that brand.
So they can’t compete in the small car market. But what about GM’s bread and butter categories, like vanilla-flavored sedans? Unfortunately, they’ve even been losing on that front as well. The Ford Taurus was the best-selling car in the country for years, followed by the domestically produced Toyota Camry. In the meantime, The Oldsmobile brand limped along for years before GM execs finally pulled the plug in 1999. They tried all sorts of marketing ploys to save it, including more than a dozen different slogans for the brand over a 15 year period. They did everything BUT build a car that appealed to anyone.
GM missed the boat entirely on the minivan craze, and they were slow to market with their SUVs. (But no one will deny the success of the Suburban.) GM actually had the lead in green technology in the late 90’s with the EV1 electric car, but they pulled the plug on that for short-term financial reasons. Now, while the Toyota Prius flies out of showrooms, GM’s playing catch-up yet again with the Chevy Volt. The volt is not a hybred. It’s actually an electric car, leaps ahead of Toyota in the green car game. It plugs in and it looks racy too, but it might be too late to the starting line.
Clearly, GM has been all over the place strategically. Now it looks like the bailout will force them to focus their efforts a bit. There’s already talk of paring the product line-up, and in the recent Senate hearings GM execs said their new strategy is “to focus available resources and growth strategies on the companies profitable operations.”
I guess that means four core brands… Chevy, Buick, GMC and Cadillac. And potentially four more marketing failures: Pontiac, Saab, Saturn and the king of them all, Hummer. (Don’t even get me started on that.)
Even with the forced focus on just four brands, GM will have a difficult time turning a profit. According to Automobile Magazine, the Cadillac CTS is actually one of GM’s small glimmers of hope for something better down the road. “It’s not relevant at $60k, but it’s a reminder that GM knows how to build a very special automobile. It’s the pride of Lansing Michigan and proof positive that GM has a lively pulse.”
Hmmmm. How can a car be “not relevant” in the market, but hopeful? And why does the mainstream press assume that GM will suddenly “start building fuel efficient cars that people want to buy” as soon as this bailout comes through? They haven’t done it yet. And no marketing blitz or government bailout can turn a lousy product into a branding success.
There’s an old saying in advertising circles… “great advertising just kills a bad product faster.” Sadly, GM’s history is littered with products that died fast, deserving deaths.
What you can learn from a good, strong shot of Vodka.
The first rule of advertising is this: Never take the same approach as your closest competitors. If you want to differentiate your brand, you have to think “different.” Contrarian even.
• Even if you’re selling the same thing, don’t make the same claim. There are hundreds of different ways to sell the benefits of your product or service, so find one that’s different than your competitors. That often comes down to one thing: Listening. The better you are at listening to consumers, the easier it’ll be to differentiate your brand.
• Don’t let your ads look or sound anything like competing ads. Use a different layout, different type style, different size and different idea. The last thing you want to do is run an ad that can be mistaken, at a glance, for a competitor’s ad. If all the companies in your category take a humorous approach to advertising, do something more serious. Find a hook that’s based on a real need of your target audience, and speak to that. Zig when the competition is zagging.
• If you’re on the radio, don’t use the same voice talent or similar sounding music. Find someone different to do the voice work, rather than a DJ who does a dozen new spots a week for other companies in your market. Same thing for tv spots. (This is an easy trap to fall into if you live and work in a small market… there’s not enough “talent” to go around.)
Unfortunately, every industry seems to have its own unwritten rules that contradict the rules of advertising.
These industry conventions aren’t based on any sort of market research or strategic insight. They’re not even common sense. Everyone just goes along because “that’s how it’s always been done.”
The problem is, if that’s how it has always been done, that’s also how everyone else is doing it. In fact, some of these industry conventions are so overused they’ve become cultural cliches.
The rule in the pizza business says you have to use the “pull shot:” A slow-motion close-up of a slice of pizza being pulled off the pie, with cheese oozing off it. In the automotive industry, conventional thinking says you have to show your car on a scenic, winding road. Or off the scenic winding road if it’s an SUV. In the beer business, it’s a slow motion close up of a glass of beer being poured.
These are the images that everyone expects. They are the path of least resistance for marketing managers. But if you go down that road, and follow your industry conventions, your advertising will never perform as well as you’d like. In fact, history has proven you have to break the rules in order to succeed.
Absolute Vodka is a perfect example. In 1980 it was a brand without a future. All the market research pointed to a complete failure. The bottle was weird looking. It was hard to pour. It was Scandinavian, not Russian. It was way too expensive. It was a me-too product in the premium vodka category.
But the owner of Carillon Imports didn’t care. He believed his product was just different enough… That all he needed was the right ad campaign.
So he threw out all the old conventions of his business and committed to a campaign that was completely different than anything else in his industry. And he didn’t just test the water, he came out with all his guns blazing.
Needless to say, it worked. The “Absolute Perfection” campaign — which is still running today — gave a tasteless, odorless drink a distinctively hip personality and transformed a commodity product into a cultural icon. In a decade where alcohol consumption dropped, Absolute sales went from 12,000 cases a year to 2.7 million. And it’s still the leading brand of Vodka in the country.
The moral of the story is this: When you choose to follow convention, you choose invisibility. To gain attention disrupt convention.
Instead of worrying about what everyone else has done, focus on what you could be doing Take the self-imposed rule book and throw it away. Do something different. Anything! This is especially important for service companies that are difficult to differentiate from the competition.
Take real estate agents for example. Realtors are, in essence, me-too products. In Bend, Oregon they’re a commodity. Even if a realtor has a specialty there are at least 100 other people who could do the same thing. For the same fee. That’s the bad news.
The good news is, even though there’s no difference in price and no discernable difference in service, you could still create a major difference in perception. If you’re willing to think different.
Like Absolute Vodka, a unique approach to your advertising is the one thing that can set you apart from every other competitor. Advertising is the most powerful weapon you have, simply because no one else is doing it. At least not very well.
But putting your picture in an ad won’t do it. That’s the conventional approach.
Remember rule number one and run advertising that says something. Find a message that demonstrates how well you understand your customers or the market. Run a campaign that conveys your individual identity without showing the clichéd, 20 year old head shot. Do what the owner of Absolut did. Find an approach that is uniquely yours, and stick with it no matter what everyone in your industry says. Over the long haul, the awareness you’ve generated will translate into sales. Next thing you know everyone else will be scrambling to copy what you’re doing.
Eventually your campaign just might become a new industry convention.
Saying no in business is one of the most difficult yet liberating things you can do. You might want to practice at home, with your kids.
The most effective managers and executives say no a lot.
For instance, they politely decline to pursue business that doesn’t fit their strategic objectives. They say no to employees who try to hijack their time. They don’t tolerate overblown financial projections and long, drawn-out presentations. They say no to new initiatives that don’t fit the brand or the corporate culture.
They even say no to their bosses and to their best clients sometimes.
The typical small-business owner, on the other hand, says yes, yes, yes to anything that comes along. Turning down work is just not part of the program. So in an effort to grow the business and put food on the table, they make a habit of appeasing people.
“Sure, we can do that.” Yes, we can do that too.”
It’s a particularly common problem in professional service firms. Because after all, it IS a service business. We serve our clients. We aim to please.
An overly agreeable approach isn’t just a lack of courage. It’s often symptomatic of two glaring managerial shortcomings: little or no strategic thinking and a brand that’s not very focused or well defined.
Defining a Brand Strategy means choosing a specialty, setting specific goals, and turning away business that doesn’t fit with your core brand values. If you don’t say no in business, you’ll never have an iconic brand.
The clarity that comes from a well-defined, well written brand strategy makes it much easier to say no when you really need to.
When Steve Jobs returned to Apple in 1997 the company was, in his own words, “in deep shit.” They had at least 13 new initiatives and product ideas but no direction. No strategic focus. No “gravitational pull,” as he put it.
Jobs killed all but two of the initiatives. One was the iMac and the other was the G4. By saying no, he set the company in a specific, definable direction that’s still paying off today.
“Companies sometimes forget who they are.” Jobs once said. “Fortunately, we woke up. And now we’re on a really good track. It comes from saying no to 1,000 things to make sure we don’t get on the wrong track or try to do too much. We’re always thinking about new markets we could enter, but it’s only by saying no that you can concentrate on the things that are really important.” *
Peter Drucker believes the only people who truly get anything done are monomaniacs – people who are intensely focused on one thing at a time. “The more you take on, the greater chance you will lose effectiveness in all aspects of your life.”
Best-selling author Ken Blanchard, (The One-Minute Manager, Gung Ho) says without clear goals you will quickly be a victim of too many commitments. “You will have no framework in which to make decisions about where you should or shouldn’t focus your energy.”
So I guess modern day multi-tasking isn’t the shortest route to success.
Mahatma Gandhi said, “A ‘no’ uttered from deepest conviction is better and greater than a ‘yes’ merely uttered to please, or what is worse, to avoid trouble.”
As a Creative Director I say no a lot. Clients often make impossible requests at the 11th hour or float their own “creative” ideas in early strategy meetings. Sometimes, I swear, they’re just trying to get a rise outta me. Deep down they know their ideas are lame, but they want to see how I handle it.
Here are some good things that come from saying no in business:
• You have more opportunities to say yes to the right customers, at the right time. You can pick your battles.
• You have more time to focus on more important tasks, like long-term planning, strategic thinking and branding.
• Your operation will become more streamlined and efficient.
• You’ll have a better sense of balance in life — between work, home and play.
• Saying “no” expresses how you really feel. You’re not hiding anything, and you’re taking responsibility for your own feelings. It’s more authentic than a forced “yes.”
• Saying no actually increases your value in the market niche you’ve choosen.
At BNBranding one of the goals of our new business development effort is to say no more often. And not just to accounts that are too small, but also to businesses owners, marketing managers and entrepreneurs who might pay well, but don’t share our core values.
We need more work, but not just any work. Work that we’re proud to show off.
We need clients, but not just any clients. We need clients who we’re genuinely happy to help, and are honestly grateful for it.
Fast Company magazine ran a great article about Jim Wier, the CEO of Snapper lawn mowers. He said no in business. In fact, he said no to Walmart and gave up tens of millions of dollars in annual sales with one visit to Arkansas. But he was adamant that selling Snapper mowers through Walmart stores was incompatible with their strategy and their brand.
Now that’s courage. And focus.
Most large companies with a well-respected brand like Snapper would be tempted to launch a line extension strategy to accommodate Walmart. Just produce a cheaper mower overseas and slap the Snapper name on it. But Wier knew that would just dilute the brand and confuse people.
Like when Subway recently announced they’d be test marketing pizzas. How does that fit with their “eat fresh” healthy fast food strategy? Can you see Jared, the Subway spokesperson, losing 60 pounds while eating pizza? I don’t think so.
Someone should have stepped up and said no to that idea.
For more on establishing a clear brand strategy, try this post.
If you need some help establishing a clear marketing strategy, and executing it, give us a call. We might say no, but we might not. 541-815-0075.
* The Steve Jobs story is from “The Perfect Pitcth” by Jon Steele. BNBranding branding services, advertising agency marketing management. in Bend, Oregon.
Chat with a branding expert: (541) 815-0075