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Companies strike up the brand to win over new, loyal customers

Companies strike up the brand to win over new, loyal customers

As competition in the restaurant industry heats up and consumer expectations constantly change, the creation of embraceable, distinct brand identities is increasingly critical for marketers striving to set their concepts apart from the pack.

But the brand game is not easy to win. Consumers are constantly bombarded with messages across a wide array of media, and merely setting a brand image before the public may not be enough to win their loyalty. Successful marketers say they must not only differentiate their brands, but also make sure they evolve as consumers’ tastes and values change.

“In 99 out of 100 cases it isn’t a question of whether someone knows the brand, it’s a question of what they know the brand for and—this is the big question—how the brand is able to meet or exceed the expectations for the particular category,” says Robert Passikoff, president of New York-based Brand Keys.

Competing in the brand game is further complicated because the restaurant category is no longer static, he says. The factors that drive customer loyalty for restaurant brands have changed, and restaurants that do not adapt to accommodate the changes will lose customers to restaurants that have a more keen sense on how to maintain strong brand values, Passikoff says.

Ten years ago, the Brand Keys Customer Loyalty Engagement Index found that price-value, service, food and food quality, and fun were the factors that drove brand loyalty in the restaurant category. This year, however, loyalty is driven by menu variety, customer service, healthful menu choices and value, decor, and entertainment.

Subway ranked first in customer loyalty this year in the quick-service category of the index.

“You look at Subway, they can make me anything,” Passikoff says, alluding to menu variety as a key driver. “Therein lies the entire structure of engagement, and that’s what the game is about today. If you want to have people loyal to you, you have to engage them on the basis of their values and how you differentiate from the competition.”

A recent survey by the Association of National Advertisers found that 75 percent of all respondents viewed brand equity as very important to their company’s success, according to the ANA Marketing Maestros blog. Most of the respondents said that brand equity is an “intangible ingredient” that differentiates them from competitors.

The survey also identified five warning signs of brand deterioration, one of them being that repeat business decreases compared with repeat business at competitors.

Executives at Damon’s Grill had identified that as a warning signal even before the study came out in April. Their own research showed a large base of lapsed users, primarily female, that was forcing guest counts down and decreasing frequent dining, says Jon Quinn, director of marketing for the 80-plus-unit chain based in Columbus, Ohio.

“Our concept was lacking appeal,” he says.

Damon’s recently presented a brand repositioning to franchisees that focuses more on food and less on the sports-bar atmosphere and projection TVs that have dominated the Damon’s identity since its founding in 1979.

Those TVs brought customers into the store because they were something that most people didn’t have in their homes. But as technology advanced, Damon’s was forced to compete with “home theater,” made possible by better, affordable TV sets, “and our position was less and less unique,” Quinn says.

Damon’s also did not have enough “female-friendly” food, he says, which kept away not only women but also their husbands and boyfriends when the women suggested eating elsewhere.

The chain has developed a prototype store design with an ambience suited more for a casual-dining restaurant than one that focuses on televised sports, though Damon’s is not about to forgo its sports heritage, Quinn explains.

“It’s mostly about the food, but it’s a sports-themed environment,” he says.

The chain has hired San Francisco-based The Culinary Edge to create new menu items, which Quinn says is a key component of the brand repositioning. Such Damon’s signature items as ribs and prime rib will remain on the menu but “everything else is fair game” to be removed if that would stimulate new customer traffic, he says.

Damon’s also has redesigned its logo to make it look “a little more upscale and sophisticated,” Quinn says. The color palette is darker than the old logo, which Quinn says “was a little too QSR-ish.”

The new logo uses the tag “Great Food. Game Day and Every Day,” to attract customers who want a meal but don’t want to watch sports.

“I don’t think there was any doubt among the executive staff that this was the right way to go,” Quinn says.

Strong brands become integral to the lives of consumers, and new research by BBDO Worldwide says brands that are “embedded” in the daily rituals of consumers become “fortress brands” that consumers stick with over time.

That terminology is new, but such brands as Freebirds World Burrito have seen that kind of brand devotion through the years from its loyal “Freebirds Fanatics.” White Castle also could claim to be embedded in the lives of its “Cravers.”

For whatever reason—price, restaurant location, food, convenience—consumers strongly identify with the brands, and White Castle and Freebirds try to solidify that emotional bond through their marketing.

The Krystal hamburger chain, which has more than 400 units in the South and Southeast, does the same. The chain boasts of its having a “cultlike” following of diehard customers, who submit their stories of “passion” for the brand for induction into the Krystal Lovers Hall of Fame.

“From a brand perspective we really try to cultivate that,” says Mike Williams, vice president of marketing for the Chattanooga, Tenn.-based company.

Krystal uses real people in its advertising and began placing images of customers on its packaging three years ago. Last fall it launched a social networking website and is preparing to begin a Webbased reality series, created by and starring college students, later this year.

Every facet of Krystal’s marketing mix is designed to involve customers in the brand, not just advertise the brand to them, Williams says.

“The brand is what is in their mind and heart,” he says. “We really don’t push products anymore. We push experience. That’s what sells food to them now. They come to us because they know they can get an experience.”

The social networking site is a tool to deepen the brand commitment of Krystal customers, who recognize that the brand is making it easy for them interact with each other online, Williams says.

“They certainly identify with the brand,” he says. “Still, it’s how you make your brand relevant. In our business you have to have great food served well and quick. Those have become table stakes. The way you make a difference is through the experience. People put in an association with a restaurant. It’s a gut and heart decision: ‘I love the way it makes me feel.’”

Williams acknowledges that sustaining a strong brand is more challenging today than in the past because consumers have changed their behavior toward brands.

“People are interacting with the brand,” he says, “and thinking about brands in a different way. To make your brand effective you have to tap into what’s true of the brand. You don’t make the brand into something it’s not.”

For Fifth Group Restaurants, which operates five restaurant concepts in Atlanta, branding is “another layer and opportunity to communicate” with customers, says Robby Kukler, a co-founder of the group.

Fifth Group recently launched a branding effort to position its concepts—South City Kitchen, The Food Studio, La Tavola Trattoria, Sala-Sabor de Mexico and Ecco—as restaurants that can accommodate the dining moods of customers no matter what they are and how often they change.

Taglines urge customers to “Be Yourself” and promise “Food For Every Mood. Tastes For Every Person.”

“We do try to cater to the individual,” Kukler says. “It’s knowing what guests want on any given day.”

That’s a bold brand promise, but Kukler says each restaurant is ready to deliver on it by hiring people who are sincere about serving customers and instilling in them a culture of hospitality.

“It’s a do-the-right-thing kind of value system,” he says. “Do what’s best for the guest. We empower [employees] to make a decision that’s best for the guest. It’s an ongoing culture and an idea that we’re there to take care of people.”

Servers are expected to “read each guest at each table” to understand their dining moods, Kukler says.

Fifth Group’s branding efforts focus on each individual restaurant by name because customers may or may not know that Fifth Group is the company responsible for their operations, Kukler says.

“Someone’s not going to say, ‘Let’s go to a Fifth Group restaurant,’” he explains. “People don’t go out to eat at a brand. They say, ‘Let’s go to La Tavola.’ Ultimately, it’s what we are doing at each restaurant and that each restaurant is doing what we promise.”

Still, it’s important that the Fifth Group’s image as a restaurant company is strong among consumers, he says. Someone who’s had a good dining experience at South City Kitchen and knows that Fifth Group owns it might feel inclined try another of the company’s restaurants.

“We can cross-promote,” Kukler says. “It’s an understanding [among diners] that with that brand they can expect a certain standard, whether it’s food, service or creativity.”

Fifth Group’s primary marketing tactic is sending e-mail blasts to 23,000 people in its database. The e-mails are sent under the company name so that they’re aware of each restaurant concept in the group, Kukler says.

But each restaurant has to perform at the expectations set for it and not depend on the others in the group to give Fifth Group a good image. “No one can rest on the laurels of another,” Kukler says. “We’re only as good as the last plate that went out.”

Word-of-mouth, whether it’s good or bad, remains a strong measure of whether a brand delivers on its promise where it counts: at the store level. Before bad word-of-mouth can spread, restaurants that participate in mystery-shopping programs can catch problems and ensure that their employees are effective brand ambassadors, says Brad Holdgreve, vice president of sales and marketing for Corporate Research International, a market research firm specializing in mystery shopping and customer satisfaction surveys.

“Mystery shopping is a very detailed way to collect information,” he says. “We can send a shopper in to look at specific details and answer questions on what they see.”

The advantage of mystery shopping is that it’s an independent third party involved in assessing performance, Holdgreve says.

“There’s no bias toward the restaurant,” he says.

Coppell, Texas-based CiCi’s Pizza, which has about 600 units in 27 states, began a mystery-shopping program three years ago to provide feedback to employees on how consumers view the service they offer, says chief marketing officer Tom Koenigsberg.

A brand doesn’t truly exist until consumers experience it at the store, he says, and it’s the employees who are responsible for that experience.

“People need feedback,” he says. “If employees are brand ambassadors, how do we give them appropriate and detailed feedback on how they’re orienting the brand?”

Mystery shopping measures the brand standards “in every aspect of the CiCi’s experience,” Koenigsberg says.

Stores receive scores based on the operational factors CiCi’s wants to measure, such as making sure each customer is greeted upon entering the store and whether the buffet was fully stocked. Most questions involving operations can be assessed with a simple “yes” or “no,” he says, as in measuring whether all the customers were greeted.

“We try to keep it objective,” Koenigsberg says. “It makes it easier for the shopper and for our employees who receive the feedback so they can trust that they’re getting accurate feedback.”

Franchisees are using mystery shoppers as a way to manage their operations, he says, and CiCi’s has correlated good ratings to positive same-store sales. Company executives meet regularly with franchisees to discuss the ratings.

“The stores that have awesome same-store sales are getting the [high] scores and delivering the brand in a very powerful way. It’s so logical,” he says.

A good indication of how a store provides the entire brand experience can be gauged by whether the mystery shopper receives the initial greeting, something on which CiCi’s prides itself.

Employees who consistently greet customers know how important that is to the CiCi’s brand, Koenigsberg says, and shows how they feel about other facets of operations.

“They’re concerned about everything else in the restaurant,” he says.

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