December 13, 2021

The State of Restaurant Marketing & Key Trends to Watch in 2022

By Sam Littlefield

It’s hard to believe this year is coming to a close. But here we are — putting the icing on the 2021 cake. 

The end of the year is always a good time to reflect. What have the past 12 months been like for restaurant marketers like you? 

With that in mind, we put together this year in review. Let’s remember 2021’s big moments and, more importantly, celebrate our collective survival through another unprecedented (yep, we said it) year. 

And don’t worry. We’ll sneak a peek at 2022’s restaurant marketing trends, too. 

Reflecting on Restaurant Marketing in 2021 

By most accounts, 2021 was leaps and bounds better than 2020. Vaccines brought people back through your doors to dine inside. You likely have some revenue in your pocket to close out this year, which is something you might not have said this time last year. 

But we’re still far from “normal.” Especially considering the restaurant industry was one of the hardest hit during the (yet-to-end) pandemic. 

Without further ado, here’s your look back.

Early 2021: Conserving Your Marketing Budget and the Social Media Platform that Never Was

In December 2020, frontline workers began receiving the COVID-19 vaccination. Then, sometime in January through April of 2021, the mad dash for everyone else to get the jab began. 

It’s true that we had developed and deployed a shot in record time, but no one was sure what that would mean for eating out. 

Would previously hermit-like folks rush to dine indoors exactly two weeks post-second vaccine? If so, would you have enough resources to feed them and give them a quality dining experience? Or would everyone remain at home regardless of their vaccination status? 

Because of this uncertainty, our clients and contacts in the restaurant world were still (understandably) cautious with funds during this time. From a marketing perspective, you might’ve relied more heavily on organic methods over paid media to conserve your budget in case things didn’t turn around. Brand awareness via social media was definitely a go-to. 

When restaurants did spend money on advertising, it was in the form of display and TV campaigns enticing customers to order delivery or pick up a to-go order. Of course, takeout was the saving grace amid pandemic shutdowns and even during these early days of 2021. 

The last thing that happened in the first half of 2021? Clubhouse

Clubhouse was supposed to be the next big thing in social media. A lot of restaurants jumped on board. As we now know, it never took off. It was nothing more than a shiny object, which begs the question: What will be the shiny new thing that commands attention in 2022? And will it be worth your time? 

Late 2021: Balancing Your Marketing Efforts During a Nationwide Staff Shortage 

By July 2, 2021, 67% of Americans had at least one dose of the COVID-19 vaccination. It’s truly amazing the difference a few months can make! This likely marked the beginning of better days for your restaurant — and the industry as a whole. Many folks were and are back to eating out. 

There’s just one problem: You (and everyone else) have a staff shortage

Sure, diners are back to dining in the latter half of 2021 up until now. But you can’t serve them without waitstaff, cooks, bartenders, and every other role in a restaurant. Even worse, we’re still not sure what exactly is causing hiring problems. 

It could be that, thanks to remote work, former restaurant employees realize they don’t have to work in a restaurant. They don’t have to assume the risk of working around lots of other people while COVID is still very much around. It could also be that staff shortages nationwide mean people can be pickier about the jobs they’re taking. They’re choosing gigs with more regular hours and standardized salaries. 

No matter the reason, your restaurant might still be struggling to hire employees. This poses a unique challenge for you as a marketer. On the one hand, it’s your job to get diners through your doors with your marketing and media tactics. On the other hand, you don’t want to crowd your dining room if you don’t have enough staff. Customers will probably have a bad experience, which could lead to negative online reviews and disloyal diners. It’s been a tough balancing act. 

One more reminder of late 2021: TikTok surpassed YouTube in viewing time by user per video. This is an astonishing stat given that YouTube is a legacy platform and TikTok remains relatively new. Stay tuned for our thoughts on TikTok for restaurants in 2022. 

Looking Ahead to Restaurant Marketing in 2022 

And so it begins. We’re about to transition from the wild ride that was 2021 to the unchartered waters of 2022. Here’s our take on what’s coming down the pike for restaurants.

It’s Time to TikTok 

We’ll start by predicting that TikTok is not the shiny object of 2022 like Clubhouse was in 2021. It’s here to stay. The fact that it’s slowly overtaking YouTube is all the proof you need of its popularity. 

Millennials and especially Gen-Zers are the decision makers of the world. In 2022, Gen-Z will continue to age and have even more buying power. And guess what? These are the people on TikTok. 

So how do you reach Gen-Z and get them to choose your restaurant? You have to create TikTok content they care about. TikTok does offer paid advertising. But frankly, the targeting options are weak and it’s not super cost effective. More importantly, younger generations can spot salesy ads from a mile away. 

Instead, we recommend leveraging organic content on TikTok. Take advantage of the latest dance trends and create your own in-feed videos. You could also consider influencer marketing — a softer-touch alternative to straight-up paid social media ads

No matter what you produce for TikTok, heed the advice of Chipotle’s CMO: The crazier the better. Let your restaurant’s fun side show so you can authentically connect with the platform’s young audience. 

Cut Back on Cable 

CTV — aka connected TV — is a television that supports content streaming from the internet. It includes all your favorite apps, like Amazon Prime Video, Sling, Hulu, YouTube TV, and countless others. 

What you need to know about CTV is that the advertising options are awesome — and getting better all the time. 

First off, the ads your restaurant runs on CTV are unskippable. That’s a game-changer for commercial-avoidant viewers. CTV is also way more cost effective than traditional television advertising. You might spend $200,000 for a commercial in one market with traditional TV. Meanwhile, you could purchase 10 markets for just $30,000 on CTV. 

We’re not saying traditional TV is dead. It has its place in restaurant marketing. But in 2022, consider CTV as well. It’s budget-friendly, offers fantastic real estate, and shows up on the world’s most popular streaming services. 

Refine Your First-Party Data

Google was supposed to phase out third-party cookies in 2022, but they’ve pushed their deadline to 2023. That’s good news for you. It means you can target lookalike audiences and other Google users without unique IDs for at least a little bit longer. 

Still, the time is coming when you’ll have no choice but to rely on your first-party data to reach diners. To that end, spend time expanding and organizing your opt-in list(s). When Google does stop third-party cookies, you’ll be ready to market to a hearty list of willing subscribers.

What’s Next for Your Restaurant?

Looking back at 2021, we hope you feel proud of your restaurant and its marketing achievements. It certainly wasn’t an easy or straightforward year for most. 

Looking ahead to next year, consider the trends we see coming. How might they impact your restaurant’s marketing planning? 

No matter what, we have our eyes peeled waiting for all that 2022 has in store for the restaurant industry. And you know we’ll be here to tell you all about it.