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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

7 a bend oregon branding firm

Put some meat in your marketing messages.

BNBranding logoEvery year, millions of dollars are wasted on advertising that is glizty and well-produced, but not very well thought-out. Like the stereotypical supermodel… nice to look at, but there’s just no substance there.

A few years ago I was talking with a restauranteur about this very subject. He had retained an ad agency to help promote his launch. They produced a website, some digital ads, a radio advertising campaign, some social media posts and a slogan.

They did all that without having a single, meaningful conversation with him about his business. If they had, they would have realized that this particular business owner didn’t understand his own brand.

a bend oregon branding firmHe had an exquisite restaurant in a perfect location with an impressive interior and outstanding cuisine, but he had no story to tell. No clear idea of what his core message ought to be or who his audience was.

In other words, he was missing a clearly communicated value proposition.

Unfortunately, his ad agency was relying on him for the brand strategy, so what he ended up with was a campaign that he admitted “doesn’t really fit this place.”

He and I did more quality thinking over coffee than he had ever done with his ad agency. After our conversation he was convinced he needed to start all over.

It was an expensive lesson, and an all-too-common false start with his ad agency.

He should have hired someone to help him define his brand strategy before diving into an ad campaign. Before he paid a top-name architect to design the restaurant. Before he ever trained his servers or developed the menu, he should have known what his establishment was “all about.”

That’s the difference between a strategic branding company and most small ad agencies. Branding starts earlier — further “upstream” — and  goes deeper. It touches all facets of the business, not just the outbound advertising messages. It goes beyond the sizzle to the meat of the business.

That particular business owner was not unique. A recent article in the Harvard Business Review shows that the majority of VP and C-level execs don’t know their company’s strategy. Or at least they can’t verbalize it without launching into long-winded corporate mumbo-jumbo.

Companies that DO have a clear sense of their marketing strategy have a huge leg-up on the competition.

Little branding bend oregon brand strategyCaesar’s is a classic example. Their brand strategy was simple: Sell value and compete with Dominoes on price. How? Sell two-for-one pizzas, to be exact.

That was the strategy they took to their ad agency, and it was spelled out quite nicely: “Two great pizzas for one low price.” Then the creative folks at Cliff Freeman & Partners figured out how to communicate that simple strategy in a provocative way:

“PizzaPizza.”

 If you’re old enough, I’m sure you can still hear that quirky voice in your head. The chain used that line for almost 20 years, and then went back to it in 2012. The tagline actually outlived the promotion… they’re not offering the two-fer deal any more, but the line still works.

According to Ad Age, “They’ve been able to grow the brand with a price point that was affordable option for most Americans… They really stand for value more than any other brand. A recent Sandelman & Associates survey rated Little Caesars the best value for the money.”

That’s their story, and they’re sticking with it.

The benefits of a clearly defined and well-written marketing strategy are clear: You won’t run pretty ads in the wrong publications or on the wrong websites. You won’t change directions every year, just to be fashionable. And you won’t have digital advertising effort that doesn’t jive with the rest of your branding.

Bottom line… you’ll be more focused and efficient in everything you do.

But how do you get there? In most small ad agencies strategy is not a deliverable. Account executives do it by the seat of the pants based on information provided by the client, and on gut instinct. Then they’ll just jump right into the sexiest part of the project… the creative execution.

bend branding firm bend ad agencyThat fits with the prevailing perception: Most business people think of strategic planning as a left-brained activity, but ad agencies are enclaves of right-brained, creative thinking. Therefore, you can’t possibly get a brand strategy from them.

Right???

Traditional thinking also says you need a consulting firm for strategy.

What’s more helpful is a sensible combination of both services from one team: Strategic insight and disciplined execution. A left-brain, right-brain, one-two punch. That’s how my firm approaches it… insight first, THEN execution.

No amount of creative wizardry will save a marketing campaign that lacks a strong, well-defined sales premise. That’s why we put so much emphasis on message development and front-end strategic issues.

Setting aside time for some productive strategic thinking is the most valuable thing you can do for your business. And it’s not about spreadsheets, it’s about story telling.

Chances are, you’ll need help. You’re too close to the situation. Too consumed by the quarterly numbers. Or just too darn busy.

So find someone you trust. Block out a day, get out of your office, and think it through with your most trusted advisors. Look at everything you’re doing, and ask yourself this: what is this company really all about? What’s the message of substance behind your marketing? Is your brand all beauty and no brains?

BTW… That restaurant I referred to in the beginning of this post has since gone out of business.

Need help pinpointing your brand story? Shoot me an email or a LinkedIn Message. John Furgurson. Johnf@bnbranding.com.

Advertising strategy from BNBranding

 

 

 

Want more info on brand strategy and strategic message development? Try this post.