Talking With: Linda Duke, Restaurant ‘Marketing Maven’

“The most successful restaurant brands are those that resonate with consumers, their brand promise is kept with every customer, every day and every dish they serve,” according to Linda Duke, CEO of Duke Marketing LLC. The full-service marketing firm based in San Rafael, CA, recently celebrated 25 years in business.

Duke has consulted Fortune 100, top restaurant, retail and hospitality chains in the U.S. and abroad, and is a nationally recognized franchise and multi-location expert, speaker, educator and published author of “Four Star Restaurant Marketing Cookbook-Recipes for Restaurateurs™,” nominated for a James Beard Award and International Association of Culinary Professionals for Best Resource in 2008.

In Modern Restaurant Management’s continuing “Talking With” series, Duke discusses the importance of storytelling, brand awareness and how to measure the effectiveness of a marketing effort.

What are some of the common strategies and tactics to effective restaurant marketing that should be in place with a modern restaurant?

People remember restaurants when they have a unique experience. That experience is what your brand stands for. By creating your restaurant’s brand personality, it will make it stand out from competitors. A great guest experience in a restaurant generates word of mouth, increases sales, guest loyalty and frequency. Creating a great guest experience is not always easy. It has to be in line with the company’s overall positioning, your promise to your guests, values, and tied to operations on an on-going and consistent basis. 

Linda Duke
Linda Duke

Today’s restaurant consumers are more diverse and demographics are more fragmented that ever before. How do you build a sustainable competitive advantage in this challenging environment? The answer comes down to your brand. Not just your logo or your name—although they are critical aspects of your brand—but the overall set of expectations you create in the minds of your customers.

Branding is a process of carefully matching the promises you make with the promises you keep.

While advertising primarily focuses on “getting the word out,” branding is a process of carefully matching the promises you make with the promises you keep. It’s about finding and fixing the gaps between how you actually operate and what your ideal consumers want, taking into account your existing culture, operation processes, product offering, sales promotions and marketing communications.

To be sure, building your brand is not easy. It takes time to research your existing attributes and scout your target markets. It takes a willingness to change “the way things work around here.” It takes discipline and commitment over time. But if you have the foresight and guts to do it, you will enjoy five advantages over your competitors.

What are some of the easiest ways to measure brand marketing for a restaurant

Measuring your sales, tracking guest comments in-person and online, and understanding what your guests want, is the best way to constantly keep track of your brand.

How do you help your restaurant clients to establish a unique selling point?

Though there are many ways to go about building your brand and the unique selling points, here is one step-by-step approach: 

Step 1:  Assess the situation.  When you get right down to it, who are you? How do others perceive you?  What kinds of promises are you making?     

Step 2) Develop a plan.  In the end, it’s all about focus.  Once you boil down the essence of your offering, leverage it by creating a strategic approach to your situation. 

Step 3:  Communicate your intentions.  Get internal buy-in before trying to affect the outside world.  Every interaction inside the organization, between your employees and the outside world, effectively creates the brand.   

Step 4:  Measure the results.  Once you have defined what your brand means, it will be possible to create benchmarks and indicate if your brand is achieving its potential.

Come up with a few answers to what you think makes your brand unique by brainstorming with your employees. Test these ideas on your customers and have the managers ask them what they like best and what they liked about it. Make sure you have the manager record the answers and give comments as to why.

Some different approaches:

  • Have the customer be able to create their own creative experience with customizable options to make the customer feel comfortable.
  • Complimentary samples, displays, free bread, chips or salads, toys or balloons also help customers remember you because everyone loves something free.
  • Fun events, demonstrations, and/or fundraisers can help the community recognize your restaurant.
  • Colorful uniforms and unique cups, bibs and napkins. 
  • Menu items that are directed towards kids and parents will help bring the whole family back.
  • Anything that touches the customer—table displays, flowers, tableside made margaritas or guacamole. Offer a unique experience that makes life easier: back pack storage area, easy access to bathrooms, unique check presenters.  WIFI is the latest trend for guests to surf the web.
  • Educate and involve customers about fun facts or the history of the restaurant and where the recipes or inspiration came from. Tell your stories to employees and they will tell customers and create word of mouth.   Even in a short newsletter that can be mailed or passed out can share your brand stories.
  • Music and or entertainment can help parents with kids and help to relax your guests.
  • Try different promotions that create traffic and sales for particular items or times such as days of the week: Fiesta Fridays, Taco Tuesday or Saturday Mariachi Match-up (hire two bands to play and customers cheer on favorite band).
  • Most importantly get your whole staff involved and make sure they like the ideas. If you staff is having fun doing it your customers will want to get engaged too.

Test a few different approaches to creating a great guest experience and pick the one that customers seem to enjoy the most and one that incorporates your brand.

How often should a restaurant be gathering and analyzing information about its customers, customer preferences, customer behavior and menu? 

My acronym, ABL:  Always Be Listening to guests and keep your brand relevant.

How important is a profitability analysis for the menu, and how often should this be done? 

Tracking what sells and what doesn’t is very important to the bottom line. Limited Time Menu offerings give operators the opportunity to “test” the sales of a particular product and can be analyzed as a good item to keep on the menu or take off.  Being profitable is why we are in business.

Storytelling is very important to give guests a great experience and an idea of what makes your brand unique.

How often should a restaurant be gathering data on competitors and the market that it operates in? Weekly, monthly, quarterly? 

 The restaurant industry is changing very quickly with new products, new beverages and new service styles. It is important to “shop” your local competitors, any brand that sells food within your three-to-five mile radius. Monthly at least.

What should a restaurant operator be paying attention to, in terms of market competitors?

To get an idea of what their prices are, how they are promoting their brand, menu items that are the same and different and what is unique about them—then you can accentuate those benefits and features that your competition does not have to your guests.

Staff training is clearly important. What should the restaurant operator be doing to make sure its employees are not only clear about operational issues, but also capable of being ambassadors for the restaurant? 

Storytelling is very important to give guests a great experience and an idea of what makes your brand unique. The best way to create positive story telling is with your employees and crew and getting them to share those stories with your guests. In turn, guests tell others and word of mouth spreads.   

How much should a restaurant be spending on marketing? Is there a hard/fast rule? 

Hard and fast rule is two percent of gross sales. Most restaurants aren’t even spending one percent because they don’t know where to spend those dollars anymore and they don’t know if it will show any return.

Where should a restaurant be devoting its marketing dollars? New foot traffic? Loyalty programs?

Community involvement and catering community businesses and events within the three-to-five mile radius, is best. Focus on fundraisers at your restaurant—invite charities and groups to host a fundraiser and donate a percentage of proceeds back to the charity or group.  It introduces new first time guests to your restaurant and shares with charities in the community. With catering, use food as marketing and drop off menu specialties, and menu at large area businesses to introduce your brand, and get catering sales. Both ways introduce your brand to new first time guests and both involve operations to make sure the experience is perfect in store or delivered to an office.

Can you compare marketing costs of a new customer acquisition effort vs increasing frequency among loyal customers?  

If you spend $500 to run an advertisement in the local newspaper one time to promote a restaurant or you spend $500 on food, and deliver to area businesses and groups—what will give you the best return for your money and new customers?  FOOD!  Food cost is only 30 percent or 30 cents on every dollar, so with $500 worth of food you can actually land catering orders, fundraisers or sampling at events to introduce your brand instead of waiting for someone to bring in a newspaper with the advertisement.  Also, you don’t need to discount with food, you do need to offer something in the newspaper and instead of discounting, I recommend a complimentary unique menu item be given away, to get new traffic in the restaurant. The “loyalty” component comes into play as well…instead of advertising that your brand “gives back” you can let guests know you give back by hosting fundraisers and telling them.