Marketing for Restaurants during the Pandemic (and after!)
Updated: Jul 2, 2021
I’m not going to use the dreaded ‘U’ word (unprecedented if you’re wondering). We’ve been through that spiel enough in recent times. Yes, the last year and a half has been extremely challenging for restaurants. Yes, the industry has witnessed insufferable losses and it’s unlikely that things are going to go back to Pre-Covid times for the next few years at the very least.
The numbers support this - dining out peaked at around 60% of 2019’s numbers in early 2021. The question is however, how can we keep our heads above the water till things go back to the way they were?
Yet, It’s heartening to see how restaurants have found innovative ways of addressing business challenges and engaging with their customers since March 2020.
Whether it is pivoting business models to focus more on delivery, building and strengthening their own presence to not be dependant on 3rd party aggregators such as Zomato & Swiggy or revamping menus to include items more geared for delivery, restaurants have left no stone unturned to ensure that not only will they survive the wave but ride it as well.
It hasn’t been easy though with restaurants being so dependent on delivery aggregators for visibility and having to eke out 20-30% commissions on orders.
Even restaurants that insisted they would never join such platforms could not resist the temptation given their tremendous reach, and who could blame them?
This explains why the NRAI (National Restaurant Association of India) and industry stalwarts have gone all guns blazing with the narrative of #OrderDirect in order to make restaurants more independent and sustainable.
This might sound easier for popular brands that have been there, done that: Brands with a captive and loyal database that enjoy great brand recall such as Social or Copper Chimney, but it is far more challenging for lesser-known brands. Just to provide some perspective, a very well-known restaurant brand that has been championing the cause for #OrderDirect has only been able to change the %share of orders on its own platform from 5% of total orders in May 2020 to around 14% in May 2021, and this is after an entire year of urging customers to #OrderDirect.
A jump from 5% to 14% might not sound like much but if you ask me, it is a great start and provides a solid foundation for the future. Having said that, as already established, this is bound to be a lot more challenging for lesser-known and emerging brands
Having been in food tech for 6 years and leading a team that has spearheaded marketing campaigns for more than 250 restaurant brands in the country for the longest time, here are my thoughts on how restaurants can create a unique brand, a loyal customer base, and an increase in sales over time.
1. Build an overarching strategy: It is astonishing how so many brands do not bother taking a step back to just build an overarching strategy for their brand. This might be a long drawn-out process and one that evolves over time, but it is imperative to build a universe around your brand depending on your product and values. This requires brands to undertake some research and ask themselves some hard questions:-
a) Understand your competition better: Who are your competitors? What are they saying? What makes you different from them? What items do they have on their menu? What campaigns do they run on their platforms? How are they positioning themselves? Which aggregators have they partnered with?
b) Understand your customer: Try to understand and analyse past patterns of your customer. Who are they? Are they younger or older? Do they come with friends or family? What are their favourite dishes? What is their profession? (For instance, when Boston Butt was at Fort, they noticed they had a lot of patrons who were lawyers and hence created special offers specifically for lawyers)?
c) Understand your product and brand better: Why did you start your brand? What are your strengths and weaknesses? What are your signature dishes and cocktails? What makes you different? What is your ambience like? What is your vision for the brand?
In order to understand how to chart out your Brand Universe in a strategic manner, check out The Art of the Soft Sell
To sum things up, this process is a must to ensure maximum returns through all campaigns, collaterals and platforms.
2. Translate your brand persona through your branding and packaging: This will ensure end-to-end consistency from conception to consumption and is likely to create better recall
Americano positions itself as not just a food brand, but a lifestyle brand as well.They believe that their experience is their main offering.. The result? They attached scannable QR codes on their packaging that directs users to their own curated Spotify playlist that brings the Americano experience to the homes of diners.
Don’t we all eagerly anticipate Woodside Inn’s annual Beer & Burger Fest?! Last year however, since restaurants were shut, Woodside Inn decided to bring the festive vibe to people’s homes through a beer board game with dice and tokens. Roll a 6 to chug a glass of beer? Count me and all my friends in.
One of my favourite restaurant brands (that I will not name and shame) recently disappointed by delivering its pre-mix cocktails in plastic containers. Here is a brand that talks about substance, style and sustainability on one hand but compromises on its packaging on the other hand. Needless to say, our group of 8 were extremely underwhelmed by the product and vowed to not order the cocktails from there again.
Restaurants such as Mag Street Toppings and Hundos amongst others also share instructions with customers regarding how to reheat their pizza the right way so that the pizza retains tastes as fresh as possible.
Make sure to translate this persona at the restaurant as well. SodaBottleOpenerWala stayed true to its roots by having its Parsi uncle mascot yelling at customers through tent cards asking them to socially distance. Is it too cheeky? Maybe, but it fits the brand narrative.
3. Run limited-time period fests: Nothing creates more hype and urgency than a limited duration fest This allows restaurants to not only experiment and test the waters with new menu items but also urges customers to try the new dishes as soon as possible. It can run for a week or two such as Qualia’s Greek Street Food fest to even longer such as Bombay Canteen’s Kung Pao Canteen or O Pedro’s Pita Shack.
These fests also help restaurants change things up both on their menu and on their feed which is great for PR and those Insta metrics!
Fests can be cuisine-specific such as Sassy Spoon’s Indian Menu, meal-based such as Americano’s lunch menu featuring sandwiches or concept-based such as Gateway Taproom’s Picnic At The Taproom Fest. Make sure you choose something in sync with your brand, that plays to your chef’s strengths and that would also cater to your target group at the end of the day.
All in all, fests are known to significantly drive up sales over the campaign period due to its limited nature and the customer’s sense of FOMO.
4. Experiment with new dishes and categories: Restaurants and bars have been quick to understand customer’s pain points of ordering at home vis-avis dining in and have been quick to address them as well through new offerings.
Social was amongst the first brands to introduce cocktail pre-mixes on its delivery menu for loyal patrons of their signature cocktails. Cocktails require skill to make and these brands are all filling a need in the market by compensating for the lack of skills and the extra hassle and ingredients it takes to make good cocktails at home.
Similarly with customers no longer working from offices and having access to canteen food, brands jumped at the opportunity of curating healthy lunch boxes to give customers the ultimate mix of taste bhi, health bhi. Iconic European restaurant ‘The Table’ recently introduced a lunch subscription service that allowed customers to curate their own lunch plans during the week. Who’d have thunk a couple of years ago?
Another major customer grievance is that certain dishes do not travel well. Restaurants addressed this by introducing DIY kits that allowed customers to assemble all components of a dish together in order to make the dish as close to the dine-in product as possible. Some prominent examples include :-
Supper’s DIY Nachos
Americano’s DIY pasta that required customers to boil the pasta and add the sauce later
The Belgian Waffle’s DIY pancake and waffle mix
End result? A product that might still not be as good as the real deal at the restaurant, but the next best thing.
5. Activities and events: Keep your customers engaged with activities and events. Give them a reason to keep coming back. When things open up, restaurants can explore events at the venue depending on what fits the brand best.
Doolally is a brand that is known for trivia and quizzing and their Wednesday Trivia nights were a thing of legends
PORT Kitchen & Bar has a property called ‘Live at Port’ which fits in perfectly with its ethos of giving upcoming musicians and bands a platform
London Taxi was the go-to restaurant for the 2018 Fifa World Cup given its narrative of being positioned as a typical Brit Bloke who loved his sport
The pandemic might have put the brakes on the accelerator for the live gigging scene in Mumbai (even though there seemed to be several events in other cities), restaurants hosted activities online to keep their fans engaged throughout.
Social tied up with Sony Sports to host a football fan meet online to watch the UEFA Champions League final. Social also delivered Footy food kits with Champions League football memorabilia and Heineken beer to give fans the ultimate football viewing experience online.
The Table conducted an online wine masterclass in conjunction with All Things Nice and wine sommelier Nikhil Aggarwal.
Several restaurants also hosted online gigs through Instagram live. Doolally continued quizzing through its Twitter account by hosting weekly quizzes every Friday. Some restaurants also played games online with its followers such as Housie, giving away discount coupons to winners.
6. Website: Very few restaurants bothered with their own websites or delivery/reservation widgets before March 2020 due to the long TAT and hassle required to make one. Technology companies such as Hashtag Loyalty and Dotpe saw this as an opportunity to build templatised websites facilitating online deliveries effortlessly. These websites were powered by analytics, marketing tools and CRM in conjunction with delivery platforms such as Shadowfax and Dunzo.
Restaurants also jumped at the opportunity considering these platforms were charging minimal commissions of 1 to 3% compared to aggregators 20-30% commissions. I wouldn’t be surprised if these commissions increased gradually over time, paving the way for new platforms or restaurants taking the onus themselves of building and maintaining these assets in-house.
These platforms were also flag-bearers of the cause of #OrderDirect to dissuade restaurants from paying hefty commissions to aggregators which was in sync with the narrative being peddled by restaurants as well. A win-win!
7. Aggregators: Having said that, restaurants still heavily rely on aggregators for sales. The traffic and visibility on such platforms is unparalleled and realistically, owned assets and aggregator assets need to co-exist for a few years, until restaurants have scaled up on their own marketing and built a good and loyal enough customer base. However, it’ll still be incredibly difficult to get the same reach through your own media, compared to the deep pockets of Zomato and Swiggy.
Some restaurants that we have worked with have toyed with the idea of going off aggregator platforms for some time only to resume activity on these platforms within days due to a dip in sales and switch to competitors. Can it happen sometime in the future? Maybe! However, restaurants are certainly not there yet and won’t be there for awhile, unless they continue acquiring customers and engaging with existing ones. Here’s an interesting idea for the NRAI: How about building your own social network or community for foodies in the country to build a database over time for promotions?
Several restaurants try to beat aggregators at their own game by providing incentives and discounts to #OrderDirect. Restaurants such as Smoke House Deli and Sassy Spoon offer discounts upto 25% on their own platforms.
8. Social Media: Let’s cut to the chase: Social Media (and great food photography!) is a must for growth.
In fact, according to reports, 35% of people join social media for food-related content and to follow their favourite restaurant brands online. In fact, click-through rates and engagement rates are far higher for food brands compared to most other industries.
This point merits an entire post by itself, so I’ll just share some key actionable points for social media:
Make it engaging! Don’t just talk about your product
Focus on great visuals. Get a professional shoot done
Keep experimenting with new formats whether it’s Reels, Rooms, Stories or Posts. Make sure you reach out to your customer across multiple touch points
Come up with content categories and buckets based on your overarching strategy defined earlier
Test test test - Does the pizza image work better than the pasta? Ambience or Food? Video or Carousel? Top down shots or lifestyle shots? Copy on creatives or no copy? Post at 12pm or 6pm? The more you test, the more you know
9. Performance Marketing: An average post on social media organically reaches out to only 5-25% of follower bases and at times even less. Online ads help restaurants reach out to newer and larger audiences, assist in acquiring new customers and help retain existing customers.
To give some context, a restaurant page with a follower base of 10000 might only end up reaching out to 2000 people per post, however a quick boost of Rs. 1000 for the post could increase the reach of the post by another 5000 - 15000 people depending on your CPM.
Before jumping into performance marketing, it is imperative to answer a few questions such as:-
What are your objectives?
What is your budget?
Who is your Target Audience?
What is your top selling product?
Which platforms do you have a following on?
Do you have a database of email ids and phone numbers of your customers?
What is your landing page?
Based on the answers to the above questions, you can determine your overall advertising strategy.
Facebook & Instagram ads work best for brands with smaller budgets of Rs. 10k-30k a month. Would personally not explore other platforms such as Google Search and Display ads unless budgets are higher in the 1L a month range..
In the beginning, run ads for reach and awareness. Once you have audiences set, run ads for traffic and conversions.
Targeting is perhaps one of the most powerful tools as you can target based on location, demographics (age, gender), relationship status, interests (Asian cuisine, beer, cocktails, dim sum), behaviour (devices owned, travel patterns, shopping history) and search. Custom audiences (your own database) and lookalike audiences are the most powerful targeting tools so don’t forget to use those features.
Example - If you are a multi cuisine restaurant serving 3 cuisines, you can build a list of people who have only ordered Indian but not Chinese and retarget them through ads showcasing Indian food
As always, the creative is the king, so make sure you have clean, attractive and clutter-free creatives in your ads. Experiment with formats and don’t shy away from click-bait-y copy to get attention.
Remember to keep optimising and testing as there is no set formula for what might work for your brand.
I can honestly go on all day about performance marketing but I’m trying to be as concise in this post as there are many points to cover. Feel free to reach out to me on firstname.lastname@example.org if you wish to discuss this in detail. You can also check out my post on Ad targeting for luxury brands if you own or manage a fine dining or premium restaurant.
10. SEO: SEO is incredibly important for brands with smaller marketing budgets that have to rely on organic traffic. A good SEO strategy can make a world of a difference. After adopting a few SEO practices for a brand we were working with, the traffic to their website increased by 2.5X through search engines and % of traffic from organic search went up from 20% of overall traffic to 35% of overall traffic.
A good SEO strategy entails on-page as well as off-page measures to ensure your brand shows up amongst the top listings for relevant searches across engines.
On-page measures for your website include:
Meta tag optimisation based on keyword research and competitor mapping for homepage and important pages
Improve page loading speed
Optimise images through title, alt tags and captions
Use H1 Tags
Relevant keywords in content (look up tools such as Keyword Planner to find maximum searches for certain food terms)
Upload your sitemap and robots.txt to Webmasters, use site crawler feature to identify and remove broken links
Off-page measures include increasing your share of voice online to ensure there are as many conversations in the online space regarding your brand. The aim here is to increase mentions of your brand online. Measures include:
Set up a Google Business Listing Page
Create a blog
Increase presence of founders online across social media platforms
Set up accounts on as many social media platforms. (you don’t necessarily have to be active on all but it helps having a presence at least)
Hire a PR agency to increase mentions of brand through 3rd party platforms and media and hence in-bound links to the website
This is a continuous process and hence, would urge restaurant brands to get SEO experts on board once a quarter at least, if not every month.
11. CRM: There are several customer relationship management tools specifically for restaurants such as Inresto by Dineout and Limetray that allows restaurants to aggregate, organize and analyze customer information data to manage relationships with customers across touchpoints.
These CRM platforms also allow restaurants to upload their own customer databases to engage with them through SMS, Email and Whatsapp. Brands can segment users into different profiles so they can be targeted accordingly.
For example, you can send out a message to people whose birthdays or anniversaries are coming up (assuming you have this info with you in the first place). It’s imperative to capture this data along with other data (favourite dish, email id, phone number) through digital feedback forms at the end of a meal.
12. Influencer tie-ups and partnerships: Tie-ups with brands and influencers with a decent following and relevant connect can help restaurants tap into the follower base of these partners, hence helping the brand reach out to a fresh set of eyes.
First up, identify the set of partners your brand has already associated with and explore campaigns and content around the same. As marketers, we often have to strike up conversation to explore associations with partners and influencers which can be tedious and time consuming. Engaging with someone who we might already have an existing relationship with can often ease the path to successful collaborations.
Your restaurant specialises in Gin cocktails? Shoot a video of the process and do a shoutout on Insta for Stranger & Sons and Svami. Serve beer on tap? Publish stories tagging your partner so they can share it with their followers just like O Pedro does for its Coconut Cream Ale, brewed by Great State Brewworks.
Don’t forget to engage with internal stakeholders who can also act as influencers. An internal influencer is any team member who wields some kind of influence online. Think of internal resources such as the in-house chef who might have 3k odd followers or the specialised mixologist or founders or even employees for that matter. The collective effort it takes to encourage internal stakeholders to share content (even if the reach is lower) is considerably lower than the effort to reach out to external stakeholders and influencers.
When I was at Dineout for example, we would often ask one of our team mates who had a following of around 15k to share posts for clients instead of exploring new associations. The rest of my team had a collective reach of 10k followers which took our overall tally to 25k followers.
At the same time, it is imperative to ensure there is some kind of brand and follower connect. A brand like Masque or TresInd would be diluting its positioning by collaborating with an influencer called Munchy Mumbai or Mumbai Contests. Needless to say, the follower base of such accounts would not be the intended TG for these restaurants.
Some interesting recent restaurant collaborations, include:
Social’s tie up with Sony, Heineken and the Champions League
The Table’s recent tie up with Jim Beam to curate a Father’s Fuel Whiskey Kit for Father’s Day
Hundo’s tie up with Bumble asking followers to share the best virtual dating stories to win weekly Pizza
13. Analyse everything: It goes without saying that all these activities and tactics would be incomplete without quantifying results. Any marketing tests without data analysis is equivalent to cooking in the dark. You may know the process, but will not be able to see the results.
Make sure you create weekly and monthly marketing dashboards to track the efficacy of content and campaigns and to understand the source of traffic and conversions. Here are the key metrics you should analyse for each recommendation:
Based on these key performance indicators, analyse data to determine what worked, what didn’t and what could be improved with key actionables for the future.
I hope these ideas have triggered a thought or two! This is just the tip of the iceberg - today, restaurants have a lot of opportunity to be experimental, thus gaining first-mover advantage. If you’d like to chat further, do feel free to drop in a line at email@example.com