March 15, 2021

Marketers: Rescue Your Restaurant’s Branding Budget from Your Promo-Happy CEO Now

By Mike Rocco

At the risk of sounding like a broken record, this year (yep, a whole year) of COVID has been unforgiving for the food industry. Countless restaurants are struggling with lower patronage, new takeout demands, and — let’s face it — a gut-punch to morale.

But the demise of restaurant branding isn’t technically one of these pandemic-driven changes. In fact, branding was already playing second fiddle to digital promotions before the phrase  ‘social distancing’ wormed its way into our minds. Yes, the pandemic’s rocky economy has sped up branding’s exit, but it was already halfway out the door.

If you’re like many restaurant marketing leaders, you’re sad to see your branding budget dwindle because you know, despite its fall from grace, branding still matters. It’s the essence and experience of your restaurant. The feeling your customers get when they interact with your brand that sticks with them, even after your BOGO banana smoothie campaign ends.

So how do you convince your c-suite to see the value in branding that you see? Share these top reasons why restaurant branding remains relevant. And if that’s not enough, justify your branding spend with our tips.

Why Restaurant Branding Has Taken a Backseat

We already mentioned that branding activities — like in-restaurant experiences, non-LTO social posts, and feel-good TV spots — aren’t the focus of most restaurant marketing campaigns. Instead, restaurants are dishing out promo after promo, mostly on digital platforms. But why?

Analytics are CEO Bait


The number one reason restaurant branding is getting the ax is that it doesn’t drive instant, measurable traffic and sales. And executives everywhere are obsessed with these new(ish) age analytics.

This affair with analytics was almost predictable. Haven’t your executives spent years pestering you to put dollar amounts behind your marketing initiatives? They ask, “What’s the ROI of forcing wait staff to sing ‘Happy Birthday’ to diners?” And you say, “You can’t measure happiness.” It’s a dynamic as classic as Tom and Jerry — arty marketer vs. spreadsheet-loving CEO.

Well, your c-suite finally does have all of the data they’ve always wanted thanks to digital advertising platforms like Facebook and Instagram. Now, by CEO request, you can post a sandwich coupon on Facebook ads at 10:00 a.m. and see results from that day’s lunch rush in real-time. At long last, your CEO can say, “I spent X on that coupon and got Y ROI.”

It’s almost understandable that your c-suite doesn’t see a reason to market sans instant analytics. Emphasis on almost.

Jokes aside, analytics are pretty great. But don’t forget that marketing is half science, half art. Analytics has vastly improved the science part, but neglecting branding is dissing the art part. You need both to reach peak restaurant success.

Too Many Cooks in the Media Kitchen

Lots of optionsBefore digital platforms overtook our lives, you probably had six to eight touchpoints to reach your customers. Maybe you ran a TV commercial, placed a billboard, did a local radio spot, advertised in a magazine, and hosted in-restaurant events. Whatever your recipe for marketing your restaurant, you had ample time to focus on each touchpoint because there weren’t that many.

With the advent of digital marketing, you could have more than 50 touchpoints with your customers. You could post multiple times per day on just one social network, forget about the dozens of other online opportunities. And definitely forget about traditional media.

The digital component has irreversibly sped up your process. You no longer have six months to plan thoughtfully for a TV spot. Instead, you have a couple of hours to decide what to post to your Instagram story pre-dinner flux.

Of course, your budget hasn’t increased to keep pace with the number of advertising outlets — that would be too easy. You’re left with the same amount of money and time to spread thinly over traditional and digital media.

Because your CEO cares so much about those analytics, and because you can’t possibly do it all, non-promotional branding activities are the first to go.

Tighter Purse Strings Push Branding Out

Despite these added platforms, your budget might actually be shrinking, not just staying the same. That’s because (do we really need to say it again?) times are hard, especially for the food industry.

If you’re dealing with a reduced marketing budget, you have more to do with fewer dollars than ever before — something’s gotta give. Are you sensing a theme yet? That something that gives is, of course, lighter touch branding activities, not instant results LTOs.

The Unique Benefits of Restaurant Branding

It’s clear why branding isn’t central to restaurant marketing right now, but you need to resuscitate it. Share these top reasons why restaurant branding warrants your efforts:

Branding is a Restaurant Reputation Booster

BrandingDo you get that heaping pile of promotional inserts with your weekend snail mail? Some customers are so accustomed to seeing that dollar coffee coupon, for instance, that they’re unlikely to pay full price for that cup of joe ever again.

Branding, by its very nature, builds up your brand’s value over the long-term. Promotions — coupons, LTOs, sales, etc. — tear your brand’s value down.

Think back to our coffee example: When you offer a coupon on the reg, you’re telling your customers that you’re a bargain brand. Your coffee is worth one single dollar; nevermind the ticket price of $2.15. And unless you’re McDonald’s, that’s probably not the message you want to send. Promotions are literally devaluing your product. So, while it’s tempting to run nothing but digital ads because you can get those CEO-approved analytics and a sales rush, you will deteriorate your public image.

Branding, on the other hand, can solidify a restaurant as a winner on its own — no promos necessary. Do you see streams of coupons from the high-end Ruth’s Chris Steak Houses of the world? No, their branding game is so strong that customers actually want to pay full price — it’s part of the luxury experience.

As we always say, LTOs and promos are important. That ability to get butts in seats right away matters too. If you can’t be a Ruth’s Chris, aim for a mix of branding and promos for optimal success. That way, when you unavoidably bring your brand’s value down a notch with your next LTO, you can bring it right back up with a feel-good Facebook post.

Branding has an X-Factor Promos Can’t Match

A customer’s experience of your brand has a way of remaining with him long after he eats his final fry. Good branding has that je ne sais quoi, connecting customers to your restaurant by appealing to their human side, by relating.

Think of your favorite restaurant. Good food is table stakes. Beyond that, what do you like about it? It’s probably not their 10% off coupon. It’s branding — that unnamable feeling you get when you interact with your favorite place.

Say your favorite restaurant is a local brewhouse. Have you laughed at their clever National Beer Day (yes, that’s a thing) memes? Are you impressed by your waiter’s beer knowledge? That’s branding. Every interaction you have with the brewhouse is consistent in giving you that same feeling. Tugging at your beer-loving, beanie-wearing heartstrings.

How can you (insert CEO’s name here) even consider neglecting branding when you know it’s these human moments that shape your restaurant in a way one-off promos just can’t?

Branding Beats Your Competition

As you can see, branding is often the first thing to go when marketers are told to conserve funds. If you swoop in with ninja branding moves just as every other restaurant is bowing out of branding, you’ll forge ahead of your competition.

Even in good times, many restaurants still don’t put much effort into branding. Tell your CEO: Simple, minimal branding work will set you apart from your promo-addicted competition.

Tips to Justify Your Branding Budget

If you can’t convince your c-suite that restaurant branding is inherently important, try rationalizing the budget you earmark for branding instead.

To prove branding works, you can leverage:

  • Analytics. Since your CEO is already infatuated with data, gather your own on branding. Look at your numbers (sales, visits, impressions, etc.) with and without branding activities running. Maybe there will be a marked increase in diners after your Valentine’s Day TV ad that relied only on selling your restaurant’s romantic atmosphere. It’s not real-time data, per se, but it’s clearly branding money well spent.
  • Qualitative research. Even a short-lived qualitative study can help you gauge where your restaurant’s image stands with the public. Often, a simple video testimonial from a customer speaks volumes to your CEO on branding’s importance.
  • Budget setup. When you plan for the year, decide ahead of time that each portion of your marketing budget, including branding, will be a percentage of the total allowable spend. Then, if there’s suddenly a global pandemic, you take a percentage cut off each budget bucket, not a slash of the entire branding category. This workaround justifies why you’re still spending on branding in tough times.

In the end, branding is the lived experiences of your customers interacting with your restaurant in all sorts of ways. Don’t let the desire for data rob you of human-centric marketing or there won’t be much of an experience left.