Experiment! As Long As It Tells Well, It May Not Matter If It Sells Well

Or, just lie back and keep doing what you’re doing (like this restaurant that was closed and being dismantled when I took this photo).
Or, just lie back and keep doing what you’re doing (like this restaurant that was closed and being dismantled when I took this photo).
Or, just lie back and keep doing what you’re doing (like this restaurant that was closed and being dismantled when I took this photo).

Every issue of Food & Drink since Summer 2011 has contained one of my columns. Here’s the latest one, from the Fall 2016 issue. (NOTE: The image is unique to this blog entry.)

Sounds like Taco Bell is launching a Triple Double Crunchwrap soon—and the internet is buzzing. For whatever reason, people love acting as if they have no self control and abandon cautious healthy eating anytime they encounter something excessive and new.

Obviously, Taco Bell wants this to make money. But the attention it’s generating is already a success.

In India, Domino’s is promoting a BurgerPizza, and Instagram is full of pictures of the monstrous hybrid. In Hong Kong, KFC released two limited edition nail polish colors flavored like chicken, Original Recipe and Hot & Spicy—“finger licking good,” you see. KFC admits it was executed (it’s a real product) so they could talk about it on social media, and are currently having Hong Kong customers vote on which color (or “flavor”) should be mass produced.

KFC, of course, is the same company that a couple years ago in Europe introduced a tray liner with the ability to charge your cell phone as you ate. As you might imagine, bloggers blogged the heck out of that one.

What’s happening, of course, is that companies are realizing how important it is not just to define the brand, maintain the standards of the brand, and put processes in place that will ensure consistency of execution of their brand—they also want chatter and enthusiasm around the brand.

They want people to notice. To not see them as “just another company,” but a group of energetic, like-minded souls with senses both of humor and adventure. Social media wants to view your restaurant as collection of humans with more than an interest in quarterly sales.

Are you fun? Maybe, maybe not. Here’s five ways to start thinking about how you could be:

1. Write down three words that describe your best customer.

Just jot. This doesn’t have to be in a deck you present to your founder. Focus on the personality of the people who seem to be your regulars. Are they smart alecks? Worn-out parents? Distracted businessmen?

Those three words can help you aim at ideas that your customers might find fresh enough to talk about. Because once they share the idea, it’s as if they’re endorsing whatever it is, whether it’s extreme (a burger and a pizza), or funny (chicken-flavored nail polish), or surprisingly useful (a placemat with simple tech that can charge a phone).

2. What are you known for that others aren’t?

Ah, here we are. Back at the ol’ branding discussion. Do you have anything about you that differentiates you from your closest competitors? I hope so. Write down that thing. It doesn’t have to be totally unique—few restaurants are 100 percent different from all other restaurants. Still, there’s something you do, right? Is it “made fresh when you order?” Is it “no microwaves,” or “never frozen,” or “fast delivery?”

If there really isn’t anything all that different, then, well, like KFC before you (there are lots of chicken options), we’re going to give the thing you do a twist. Try relating your fare to the non-restaurant world. If you sell fries, what’s something that people share like fries? What’s something you say to someone you share stuff with? I just thought of fry package that has a divider for “your fries” and “my fries” that you could potentially make for Valentine’s Day or for siblings to prevent fights. I’m literally just typing this—not recommending it. Feel free to use it. Um, it’s a bicameral fry package for Election Day! Yes? No?

At the end of the day, of course, you have to think about your brand personality. Do you really want to be seen as outrageous? Is it worse to be dignified and ignored, or outrageous and Snapchatted?

3. Try colliding ideas.

This is what product development people do all the time—marketing people can do it too. Did a product developer come up with Wendy’s ghost pepper fries, or did the marketing team decide they wanted on the Ghost Pepper Express Train that left the station a couple years ago?

Who at Taco Bell decided to put Cap’n Crunch cereal in donut holes—their “Delights” were deep-friend cereal in dough balls with a “sweet cereal milk” icing. Was that someone who studied nutrition in college, or someone who studied marketing (and maybe had a roommate who owned a grow-light)?

Can you design the ideal food for a spork? It would have something to scoop and something to poke at. For carryout, find a way to make something messy tidy. Or take a menu item—whatever it is—and force it to marry a food from a different culture. Buffalo pot stickers? I don’t know.

Coffee shops and QSR chains are often threatening to try a wine bar. Do you have license to stage a night of whiskey tastings? Or an afternoon of beer pairings with the local microbrewers—does your North Carolina-style BBQ go with an IPA while the dry rub prefers a porter? Maybe if you do it at their place you don’t have to worry about the excise officers.

What about to-go orders? Can you make it easy to eat in the bleachers, or while standing up, or in the car? Someone in a car came up with KFC Go Cups awhile back. (KFC is behind a lot of these goofy ideas—they offered chicken corsages around prom season one year, too. There’s someone there without any fear of being called nutty.)

4. Think about the most entertaining way to talk about it.

Practice tweeting it. Pretend-post it on Facebook. Think about your Instagram caption. Reverse engineer your word-of-mouth generator

“Inside out sliders. We put the pickle and the bun inside the burger—for lower-viscosity, slicker slide-ability.” Okay, that’s bad. Notice all the ideas I’m throwing out are just thought-starters. Brainstorms! There’s plenty of time to judge later on, like, after you’ve read the article.

The media is always trolling for the next viral thing—they enjoyed pretending that stoners would love the Cap’n Crunch Delights (as I also did a moment ago—probably a good sign, that there’s an obvious joke). Reporters loved the junk-food-meets-taco Locos Tacos because it just sounded so daring, two iconic snacks getting together. Write a press release as if you’re launching your product. What’s the hook?

5. Experiment!

Can you do a test run? Are you bold enough to try out your unholy concoction or hilarious cross-platform/high-concept indulgence? Are you willing to be called mad, mad, I tell you?

That’s a completely legit way to play the game right now, even if your brand is busy with more important pursuits as well. A tall stack of all-you-can-eat pancakes is a fun little sideline that acts as a joke, a dare, and an extra occasion, while getting teens to text each other photos of themselves in the middle of the fifth re-order.

Text of thumb is maybe just as powerful as word of mouth, these days. What are you doing to get those emojis’ bug-eyes bulging with excitement or to put a little rosiness into their cheeks (those are the emoji faces that love what they see)? You won’t know if you don’t think about what people might tweet about.