Two ways to stay relevant while connecting with customers

By Mark Baltazar and Denis Hancock
Restaurant branding communications

Restaurant marketers are in a never-ending battle to differentiate their brand in consumers’ minds. But sometimes focusing too much on differentiation can lead a brand to miss opportunities available to them. Two of the ways to avoid doing this are:

  1. Differentiating around mega-trends
  2. Ensuring advertising is distinctly relevant

Differentiating around mega-trends

Once something becomes a mega-trend, some people argue that you can’t use it to differentiate, because everyone is already doing it. “Local sourcing,” having been identified as the top trend by the Annual CRFA Chef’s Survey for three years running, would seem to fit this bill. But understanding the various reasons consumers seek out locally sourced food options points in a more fruitful direction, where almost any brand positioning could benefit from a local twist.

First let’s clear up what “local” means. Most customers aren’t expecting you to grow lettuce in the back of the restaurant that they can hand pick for their salads (though a niche market is appearing for just that). Nor do most people have a 100-mile boundary in mind. BrandSpark’s Annual Canadian Shopper’s Study revealed that for most consumers, anything grown within provincial boundaries counts as “local.” This means many restaurants have the necessary credentials to consider getting in the game without compromising operations (and margins).

The next step is understanding why people seek out local, and which of these motivators is most relevant to your brand.

One reason people give for seeking out local food options is to help out the environment. As in most categories, environmentalism only goes so far in terms of broad market appeal, with our studies indicating it is a top driver for about 10 per cent of Canadians.

Far more important is that “local” is associated with fresher, higher-quality food. Fresh food options are increasingly important to consumers, and perceived food quality is always an important decision driver in the restaurant industry. Fresh also pairs well with “healthy” (particularly when produce is involved). So for brands looking to communicate any element of fresh, healthy, and/or high-quality food somewhere with their advertising, there is likely an opportunity to leverage “local” to amplify the message.

The number one reason people seek out local food options – supporting the local economy – is perhaps the most interesting. Many people have written about how tougher economic times have led consumers to change behaviours (another mega-trend in the market). The natural, often necessary, reaction of many restaurants is compete more on price – which can have a negative impact on the brand. “Local,” on the other hand, offers a way to also connect with customers at an emotional level in regards to economic concerns.

So whether you’re a high-end restaurant trying to further elevate the perceptions of your food, or a QSR with a core customer base that’s been particularly hard hit by the recession, “local” messaging just might work for you. Look for ways your brand can embrace the trend – in a unique way, of course.

Distinctly relevant advertising

Let’s say you are a restaurant brand that hadn’t previously considered a “local” angle, but had determined there is an opportunity for you to differentiate around it. You task your creative agency with creating a new campaign that strategically integrates some “local” messaging. They come back to you with two options. Consumer tests indicate the first option is totally distinct from what they are used to seeing from brands in the category (including yours), and the second is seen by most as extremely similar. Which one should you choose?

The best answer is you should send them back to find some middle ground. Over many years of advertising testing, BrandSpark has found that while it is important for your creative to stand out to some degree, very high “distinctiveness” scores are actually negatively correlated with purchase intent. In short, you want to be different; just not too different. And this finding holds across other industries as well. It is just one of the reasons it is often wise to conduct a creative test before investing in a full campaign.

One apparent reason is that most brands compete within a category that has fairly common decision drivers, and the advertising within the category typically reflect these. Something that consumers indicate is totally distinct has likely drifted too far from some of these drivers, and/or is causing confusion about what the brand represents. Yes, you want the ad to stand out – but also be relevant to your target, influence their behaviour, and stay true your brand value proposition.

The terms  “mainstream” and “mega-trend” often go hand in hand – and basically mean that something is popular, or becoming so. While brand differentiation is of course critical to success, it works best when you differentiate around popular things, rather than away from them, for the exact same reason people say “fish where the fish are.” And if your research is saying that your new advertising is totally distinct from competitors, be careful – because it might mean you’ve strayed a little too far from what the market wants. While differentiation is important, relevance is king.

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About the authors:

Mark Baltazar (Vice President, Marketing Effectiveness) and Denis Hancock (Director, Consumer Insights) work for BrandSpark International, a leading brand, marketing, and product innovation research company with over 10 years experience in the restaurant industry.

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