Making Changes: What if you can’t change everything all at once?

It might not even be a good idea to change everything at once. (Photo by Adam Hoover)
It might not even be a good idea to change everything at once. (Photo by Adam Hoover)

Every issue of Food & Drink since Summer 2011 has contained one of my columns. Here’s the latest one, from the Winter 2015-16 issue. (NOTE: The image is unique to this blog entry.)

I had a call recently with a vice president of marketing for a rapidly growing restaurant chain. We’d chatted at a recent conference, and I asked him to make a few remarks on a collection of Food & Drink International columns I’ve put together. He read them and said, “It’s tricky. You see how the problems exist in your own organization, but the next thing is—what am I going to do about it? If I make this change, it begins a lot of other changes.”

Big problem, isn’t it? An honest, everyday problem: it’s overwhelming to contemplate making core brand changes, yet even little tweaks precipitate big stuff. A brand overhaul is potentially expensive, full of “ifs” and “hopefullys”—the sort of thing a committee will want to influence.

Are you ready to author the first propagandized leaflets that will lead to a full-on marketing revolution? It’s glib to say, “That’s great! The little changes will have their intended effect! You can create a brand based on measured customer reaction and a growing understanding of your own strengths!”

Better Branding

Change is hard, though. There’s always uncertainty. If your organization is doing everything right, of course, then you don’t have to aspire to be a better brand.

But if your restaurant is just all right … well, starting somewhere is superior to starting nowhere. Right? Here are some thoughts on taking those first (somewhat daunting) steps.

  1. Start in smaller markets.

In an overall sense, KFC continues to try and figure out their brand positioning in America—we’re still waiting for its “not the real Colonel” gag to play out in TV ads.

But they’re making real strides toward customer engagement through various initiatives like GoCups, which made it easier to fit drive-thru chicken into your car’s cup holders. Earlier this year, a subset of KFCs in Europe offered tray liners with Bluetooth keyboards that connect to your phone, so you can update your Facebook status with greasy fingers during lunch.

And at New York Comic-Con, KFC gave away DC comic books featuring a story in which the Colonel teams up with Flash and Green Lantern to fight an evil version of himself. They just keep trying stuff.

Here’s a new one they’re testing in some major markets: delivery. Though many cities have middlemen delivery services that will pick up food from wherever, there still aren’t many restaurants (that don’t serve pizza or Chinese food) that will deliver food directly from their kitchen. But soon, maybe you’ll tip a delivery guy for a bucket of extra crispy some Friday night.

What does this say about KFC? It says they’re awake and experimenting with ways to make you happy, even if they haven’t made their overall brand message completely clear.

  1. Start in the restaurant.

OK—radio, billboards and Internet pre-roll are pricey, and you’re not quite ready to broadcast new ideas widely. So give your in-store space some flavor.

Are you the kind of place that has tray liners, posters and counter cards advertising your loyalty program and LTOs? Then I’ll wager the writing and design on those pieces look similar to your competitors’.

Play a little. Point-of-purchase materials are probably the easiest place to test out ideas: they’re relatively low profile, and give you a chance to gauge customers’ reactions. What should they say? I don’t know. That’s something you have to work out—hopefully with some talented, creative associates.

In general, though, think of it as writing scripts for a character or designing costumes for your restaurant to wear in a play. These pieces exist in real-time—people react right then and there.

Can you give all materials a consistent perspective and attitude, a consistent vocabulary and a consistent appearance—“talk like yourself”—whatever that ends up meaning?

Are you an Americanized ethnic food? A sophisticated take on burgers? A rowdy roadside bar?

How would that kind of restaurant speak if it were inviting me to download an app, leave a comment on Yelp or confidently order something new based on the locally sourced dairy products? Are you defaulting to plain, uninteresting language—or worse yet, the sound of a generic executive playing it safe with no true attitude or message? Think about the point your restaurant is trying to make and use those humble point-of-purchase materials to make it.

  1. Start in social media.

Of course, this has been the goal of every restaurant for the last x-number of years. But very few manage to be interesting. Most are recycling happy talk and specials, saying stuff like “Woo-hoo, shrimp blasters plus icy mango slush equals perfect Thursday!”

Who’s doing it right? Taco Bell has always managed to address their followers as people—youthful, somewhat sarcastic people at that. Domino’s experimented with using social media to order pizza, which invites engagement, and Chick-fil-A lets “The Cows” take over their feed for live chatting every now and then.

These ideas are fun and personable enough to engage social consumers who just want to (a) be appreciated for their individual voices and (b) be the first to discover cool, new products and ideas.

Tweeting back, “Thanks! Hope your birthday’s a great one!” or occasionally reminding everyone of your LTO doesn’t do either of those things.

  1. Start in one medium.

I love it when I see anyone—a restaurant or any business—owning a certain medium. On radio, Jimmy John’s is a major player. The chain’s commercials are fun to hear and they focus their funds on that one medium.

They did a TV spot once that I’ll bet nobody remembers. But Jimmy John’s radio is unforgettable.

Chick-fil-A cow billboards, Cracker Barrel directional billboards, Dunkin Donuts Times Square takeovers—some restaurants have chosen to be known for their outdoor ads.

Heck, Chipotle originally grabbed everyone’s attention with foil-wrapped burritos billboards, developing a hipster-ish attitude that later led to food-sourcing conversations. Don’t create a “responsible mix”—focus everything on one medium, own it, and look like the kingpin.

I totally understand it shakes up the marketing department to introduce major change.

Still: starting somewhere beats starting nowhere.