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Brand Voice 101: Arby’s loves Pepsi, but forgets to say it often enough.

Once you’ve put your finger on “who you are” and set about framing a convincing case that your restaurant has a distinct personality, an individual ad can discuss off-topic issues and still come off advancing the primary brand mission. So: Now that Ving Rhames has become not simply the voice but the attitude of Arby’s, running an ad that’s technically off-topic (like the following) isn’t a big deal—since it’s all completely within the established brand voice.

It’s easy to picture a lot of other brands suddenly wondering what they can charmingly apologize for. Although most of them haven’t got such a well-defined attitude/voice to play with.

This is how you make cola out of carbonation.

From Food & Drink: “Missed Opportunities: The cost never shows up in accounting, but it’s still a cost.”

I never do reveal the identity of the pizza chain I’m talking about in this article, but it’s not like some big secret, either. Here’s one of their promotional photographs.

I never do reveal the identity of the pizza chain I’m talking about in this article, but it’s not like some big secret, either. Here’s one of their promotional photographs.

Every issue of Food & Drink since Summer of 2011 has contained one of my columns. Here’s the latest one.

Of the pizza chains near our house, my wife and I have a clear favorite—it’s relatively big (or seems like it is), its operations seem dependable, its product is consistent, it has a professional-looking logo and graphics package. Basically, the place offers a nice pie and a decent process getting it. In fact, we prefer this pizza to other chains’, and on some nights, we prefer it to the local guys’ pizzas, too. I like supporting local businesses, but sometimes you just want pizza from a well-run franchised operation. Ya know?

All of which leads me to wonder: Why wouldn’t this be the dominant chain? Their product is arguably better, and they rarely fumble an order.

I think the problem is that they aren’t presenting a clear brand. Not their advertising—I think their TV ads have problems, but it’s bigger than that. I don’t think anyone understands who they are. It’s not that they’re doing something wrong; they just don’t do anything distinctively right.

That’s the trouble. Unless you have managed to accidentally turn yourself into a fan (like I have), there’s no reason to become one. Often I stop by to pick the pizza up (I’m not planning to reveal the name of the chain, by the way, in case you’re waiting for that) and am struck by the missed opportunities.


Everywhere I look I notice missed opportunities to define their pizza chain, to create some kind of bond or belief, to establish their brand.


The pizza box has a big logo printed on top, always obscured by a hot-glued bounceback coupon with a dull, modest offer. It always rips when we try to remove it. Missed Opportunity. On the side of the pizza box is a trite slogan that literally means nothing—some balderdash about “delicious” that doesn’t even make sense. Missed Opportunity.

Unsolicited Advice: Look what Domino’s did with their pizza boxes—they wrote and art-directed them like important communications vehicles. They’re Trojan Horse ads delivered to the door and brought unsuspectingly into the house to then amuse and entertain pizza-chewers into believing that Domino’s really has changed.

Brand voice.

Puffery. Happy talk. Puns: “A new angle on such-and-such,” showing the angle the pizza is cut; “Fundraising with us will make you lots of dough!” They could be any pizza chain, or anybody serving something baked. There is no sense of individuality. Missed Opportunity.

Unsolicited Advice: People can’t become fiercely loyal to a place they can’t trust to be a consistent personality. It doesn’t matter what the personality is—there just has to be something to identify with. Watch Little Caesar’s battle to regain the personality it squandered when it abandoned its nineties-era “Pizza! Pizza!” campaign. That goofy voice creates a positive emotional bond.


Once a brand voice is established, people are reassured when they hear that voice in every encounter. My favorite pizza place speaks in a different voice in every medium—nothing matches. Missed Opportunity.

Unsolicited Advice: From the menu to the interior signage to its website and social feeds, just try to catch Mellow Mushroom behaving in an off-brand manner: they present everything from the perspective of mellowed, happy dude under the influence of, um, quality pizza.


Every chain thinks it needs to introduce new products all the time, to create “New News,” and that’s fine except that unfortunately, the pizza place I like, in my opinion, needs to do more work figuring out the basic, over-arching and compelling reason a customer should prefer their pizza. Missed Opportunity.

Unsolicited Advice: Yeah, sure, Pizza Hut has made their brand all about New News and driven a lot of sales with new products. But they’re in every small town in America, practically, and have a ton of media money to spend. They can afford to constantly invent and push new ideas.

Customer engagement.

What about your database? Or your not-new-product-related promotions? How are you making customers feel welcome and wanted? Are you just planning to issue more modest coupons? Missed Opportunity.

Unsolicited Advice: You have to give Papa John points for their sports tie-ins. Even subtracting their Manningesque good fortune in having one particularly high profile franchisee, they still win (I swear I’m not trying to make these sports puns; they just happen) in pre-game and game-day moments—offering a chance for a trip to the Super Bowl by sending in a video of how you celebrate when your team scores, for example.


Everywhere a customer’s eyes rest, they’re absorbing information about what kind of a place you are. No one says coupons, signage, T-shirts or in-store materials have to be boring or dumbed down, and let’s get past the generic, false-feeling positivity that I see from the chain I like. Missed Opportunity.

Unsolicited Advice: Back to Dominos—no other major chain is working as hard to rise above the old-school route of logo-and-coupon, or meaningless-pun-and-photograph-of-a-pizza-pull. Order a Domino’s and look at how everything is written and designed to engage and delight, from TV ads to the coupons that say stuff like, “Another offer that sounds too good to be true except it’s actually true.” Some smaller guys seem to have this figured out better—here’s what’s printed on Naked Pizza’s napkins: “You have something on your face. Nope. Other side. Still there. Got it. [logo]”

Have I ever run a pizza joint? No. Have I ever helped a major restaurant chain define and communicate its brand? Um, well, actually yes. My colleagues and I learned from experience that there are moments to get out of the customer’s way and help them make a decision, and other moments when it delights a customer to find the company unexpectedly revealing sensitivity, humanity, intelligence and personality.

Branding is a matter of being aware and choosy about the clues the restaurant provides to convince people that they’re giving money to a bunch of imaginative over-achievers with high standards.

I suspect that my favorite pizza chain has high standards. There’s a light of intelligence behind such a fine pie delivered consistently hot. But I’ll be darned if I can see that light clearly through the fog of missed opportunities.

Taco Bell continues to offer everybody free social media advice.

What do you do when you have an app that’s really cool, but you know—your experience tells you, and you just know—that most people, even fans, are too distracted by daily life to go to the trouble of noticing and downloading it?

Especially when you’re used to making a splash?

If you’re Taco Bell, you dramatically shut down your social media, except for an announcement hashtagged #onlyintheapp. And the app gets used in an incredible 75% of stores.

Taco Bell goes dark.

By pulling everything off their very active and well-managed social media feeds, they got everyone’s attention. They might have made a few fans kind of nervous.

It was like they turned off the lights in a noisy room to shock everyone into paying attention.

On the layout for the creative briefs at my agency, we stuck a box on there that says “What if?” This is an example of letting smart, creative, brave, insightful people (who understand how your brand and customers relate to each other) follow a “what if?” idea all the way through to execution, not just as a fun thing to kick around in a meeting—“What if we go completely dark, take everything off our social media posts?“ “Ha. I like it. It’ll never happen, but I like it.” But what if?

Here’s one answer: mass adoption of an app that will deliver tons of useful consumer information, which the consumers look at as a cool convenience. That’s what if.

My Speech in Atlanta to MEG: It’s almost like you were there…

Scenes from my Fall 2014 MEG Summit speechHad the honor last week of addressing the Marketing Executive Group of the National Restaurant Association, at their Fall gathering. I had kind of a sweet spot—I was second, so the first guy sort of had the audience all warmed up, but everyone was still alert and optimistic.

I think it went well. They took a poll. I haven’t heard the results yet, but I’m hopeful people enjoyed the talk and got something useful out of it.

Perhaps you’d like to judge for yourself?

This is going to appear to be impossibly long for a blog post, but it goes pretty fast. These are my slides, and my presenter’s notes which are pretty exactly close to what I said.

Enjoy “Fifteen Forbidden Food Clichés That Are Holding You Back” as presented in Atlanta last week:

A couple Netherlands pranksters chop and serve McDonald’s to demonstrate the power of branding.

My guess is that their actual intent was pretty far away from making a valid marketing point.

I think they were out to tweak foodies and in the process throw a little shade on McDonald’s by casting them as the ultimate non-foodie hors d’oeuvre. But there’s a chilling undercurrent to this prank, isn’t there?

Removed from all traces of the brand, food is just product.

Who among us might not fall victim to a toothpicked bit of Mickey D, served on a platter at a foodie trade show?

Grocery stores sell food; restaurants sell eating. (I think there’s a book somewhere that talks about the difference.) The brand and the context that surrounds the actual pieces of food restaurants serve affects what we believe about the food.

So: keep that product quality high, no doubt. No doubt. People will hold a bad product against you for years.

But remember: the experience itself of going in to buy the food—how people feel announcing they’re going there, being seen purchasing food at your place, driving around with a wrapper bearing your logo in their car where their friends can see it—the experience is the brand. The brand is the relationship. And the relationship is relatively fragile.

As McDonald’s tries to fight its way back globally, this Dutch prank won’t really hurt them. But it does show what they have to overcome: as the biggest in a category famous for dubious health and quality, they’ve become the symbolically least-desirable.

And other than convenience, a generally happy attitude and an occasional direct appeal to people on a budget, what does McDonald’s really stand for? Happy Meals? Golden-lit Americana? Jamie Oliver’s favorite villain? A “transparent” company that finds itself under attack from the normally anodyne Time magazine site? It’s complicated.

That’s why it’s important to be clear, single-minded, and simple. Chipotle is ethical. Domino’s is earnestly trying to improve. Dunkin Donuts is the plucky underdog, Taco Bell is youthful and Hardee’s/Carl’s Jr. is hedonistic. By making every one of their communications reinforce that fact, they keep the brand powerful. They speak to their core audiences, and they understand how to talk when they do. They have brands.

And a solid brand keeps the Dutch pranksters at bay.