MEG Conf. recap: Evolving marketing landscape offers opportunities

Restaurant marketers acknowledged that changes in consumers’ mind-sets, demographics and tools for communicating have shifted the foodservice landscape to one that will be permanently evolving.

But the challenges of this new environment create opportunities, agreed attendees at the Spring 2011 Marketing Executives Group Conference. The three-day conference in Chicago, themed “Shift Happens: Capitalize on Change,” focused operators and marketers on identifying changes and consumer needs and developing ways to take advantage. The conference featured insights from Domino’s Pizza chief marketing officer Russell Weiner, as well as Howard Putnam, former chief executive of Southwest Airlines.

The conference’s final educational session, “Great Leaders Embrace Shift,” featured brand leaders Lane Cardwell of P.F. Chang’s China Bistro, Jeff Sinelli of WhichWich, Tim McEnery of Cooper’s Hawk Winery & Restaurant and Stan Frankenthaler of Dunkin’ Brands. The session was moderated by NRN Southwest bureau chief Ron Ruggless.

Cardwell, who was named president at P.F. Chang’s 10 weeks ago, said his brand and others have an opportunity to convert customers’ pent-up desire for dining out if they remind customers what attracted them to restaurants before the recession pressured discretionary incomes.

“We have a brand that’s still very well-loved, but I’ve seen a lot of loved brands lose relevancy,” he said. “When I was at Boston Market, people would say, ‘Oh I love you guys,’ but hadn’t been in for six or seven years. You need to stay on top of the relevancy.”

Frankenthaler, executive chef of the parent to Dunkin’ Donuts and Baskin-Robbins, jokingly apologized to Cardwell since his two chains benefited during the recession from guests trading down from casual-dining chains.

“We’re focused on our guest satisfaction, because we feel we’ve been able to capture some customers and visits from other brands,” he said. “I really see customers wanting to stretch [their dollars], they don’t want to pinch. … Both our brands benefit from great frequency of visits … and that allows us to really listen to them and get a sense of what they need from us.”

A similar focus on service and culinary innovation lets five-unit Cooper’s Hawk compete with upscale-casual chains that are far larger, said McEnery, founder of the wine-focused concept in Chicago’s suburbs.

“The most important thing we can do is truly focus on quality,” McEnery said. “I know everybody says that, but you can see casual-dining chains struggling because the independents and small chain really focus on great food every time. That ultimately will be what drives growth of any organization over the long haul.”

He added that poor operations could hinder the marketing team from even getting started when a restaurant goes into a new trade area. Cardwell agreed, which is why he coordinates the efforts of the marketing and operations teams carefully.

“Marketing is the gas in the engine,” Cardwell said. “We’re always looking at where the marketing team can make a difference and where it can’t. If marketing proposes it but ops can’t do it, it’s not just worthless, it’s almost dangerous.”

The panelists agreed that there could be a similar level of peril in adopting social-media marketing strategies if restaurants invest significant time into those tools without understanding customers’ expectations for them.

“I’m really trying to figure out how to make money at [social media],” Sinelli said, “because it’s brand exposure, it’s awareness, and it’s mandatory to play in this space. Rules are changing daily. How can you be an expert when it’s changing constantly?”

Cardwell responded that restaurants need to think of social media as something that enhances — instead of replaces — brands’ customer relationship management strategy.

“Facebook is a wonderful thing, but only if you respond to the people who are talking about you,” he said.

Sinelli agreed, saying, “If you open up that dialogue, you better be prepared to have it.”

Frankenthaler added that addressing concerns and complaints that come to the restaurant via social media is important, but restaurants can’t prioritize those negatives at the expense of other aspects of the business.

“Everybody’s ready to be a critic, and the Internet opens that up a lot,” he said. “We turn complaints into a human touch point, a real call from a store manager. But on the flip side, there are incredibly ways to engage your customers with your brand and make them feel like they’re participating.”

A social-media contest to create Baskin-Robbins next ice cream flavor was the biggest example of that at Dunkin’ Brands this year, Frankenthaler said, garnering 65,000 entries.

Contact Mark Brandau at [email protected]
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