Skip navigation
CMG_FajitaQuesadillaHack_KEITH+ALEXIS_PR-ASSET_230223_v2_1 (1).png Photo courtesy of Chipotle
Chipotle had much success from its partnership with TikTok influencers Keith Lee and Alexis Frost.

Influencer marketing is ‘becoming a necessity’ for restaurant brands

More restaurant brands, big and small, are shifting their marketing dollars away from traditional advertising toward influencer relationships.

Undeniably one of the biggest trends of 2023 was restaurant brands leveraging influencers on social media to sell their products. These influencers resonate with the coveted Gen Z demographic and help position brands top of mind, even if just for a fleeting moment. And apparently they’re very effective at convincing others to try a menu item. Consider Chipotle’s fajita quesadilla campaign with TikTok influencers Alexis Frost and Keith Lee, for example. The 2023 promotion helped generate two of the company’s top digital sales days of all time.

Influencer marketing is certainly nothing new, but it is reaching a fever pitch and, in fact, the industry has increased by nearly $20 billion in the past seven years. Restaurants in particular are well positioned to capitalize on this trend. According to CreatorIQ, more than 437,000 creators posted about food and beverage brands more than 1.2 million times, driving nearly 75.5 billion impressions, 3 billion engagements and a whopping $4.8 billion in earned media value (EMV). And those numbers are just from the first half of 2023.

It's no wonder brands are shifting their strategies and dollars toward influencer content. KFC CMO Nick Chavez recently described the influencer trend as a “generational pivot” and, as such, the company has adjusted its marketing strategy – and investments – to be more “content-first.”   

“We have absolutely pivoted our conversation from ‘what’s the TV ad’ to ‘what’s the content strategy?’” Chavez said. “We’ve seen that Gen Z uses TikTok as their primary search engine over Google at times, which is remarkable. How it’s informing our strategy is we’ve invested in building our capabilities in our social media management, social content production, and influencer relationships.”

Kate Finley, founder of Belle Communication, has worked with more than 100 brands, including Shake Shack, First Watch, Jeni’s Ice Cream and The Halal Guys, and confirms dollars are moving from traditional ads to influencer relationships.

“We are now seeing major monetary shifts to micro and mid-tier influencers, who come across as authentic – like a peer,” Finley said. “People are no longer counting on their true peers to source recommendations. They’re looking at influencers who feel like them. They bypass the need for a crowdsourced-peer review and jump right into the click. The conversion is stronger.”

As such, several chains from El Pollo Loco to Wendy’s to Wingstop have found plenty of success from this shift. Red Robin CEO GJ Hart told analysts in November that the company’s investments in earned media and social marketing initiatives have positioned the brand well and fostered engagements with guests. That includes a collaboration with Ariana Madix, a celebrity bartender influencer and U.S. Weekly’s TV Star of the Year, whose campaign generated over 500,000 views in its first few days alone.  

In other words, the opportunity is big, and it’s about to get bigger. According to a Morning Consult poll, Gen Zers and millennials believe what influencers are saying more than ever, with the report noting that "trust in social media influencers" rose from 51% in 2019 to 61% in 2023.

“(Influencer marketing) at its core is simply word-of-mouth marketing from a trusted source. From the early days as a blogger to the current state of micro- and nano-influencers, I see this as a marketing practice here to stay,” said Jericho Lopez, director of marketing and public relations at Qdoba. “There is a real opportunity to grow brand awareness on a global scale through this method.”

Importantly, influencer marketing can also level the playing field for smaller brands not seeking to achieve that global scale. Rooster & Rice, a nine-unit fast casual brand, recently tapped two local influencers – Nate and Lily – to promote a grand opening in Irvine, Calif., for instance. Angelina Hong, owner of Gourmand Group, the marketing agency helping Rooster & Rice with its strategy, said the concept has utilized influencers before and with much success.

“The campaigns did a great job raising local awareness. We saw large lines on opening day,” Hong said. “This is a great way to organically spread the word about new locations from trusted sources.”

Hong added that the agency is bullish on influencers in 2024 and beyond. It’s not alone. Pei Wei is also ramping up its influencer strategy.

“Influencers work. When taking to social media, people want to feel like they are talking to a person, and we are more likely to listen to an advocate for a brand than a brand promoting their own agenda. Social media is meant to be a social platform amongst other humans. We want to feel like we are talking to someone about what we are viewing,” said Grace Chao-Isaacs, Pei Wei’s social media specialist.

How to develop an influencer strategy

With a growing case-study-backed belief that “influencers work,” the focus now shifts to how to make them work. Chao-Isaacs said it’s important to utilize influencers as part of a marketing strategy and not the whole strategy. And of course, like every marketing strategy, needs differ based on the size and scope, including budget, of the campaign. Indeed, influencer budgets have a massive range, from nano influencers with 2,500 or so followers for around $100 apiece, to macro influencers, with 500,000 to 1 million followers, that run in the six-figure range. And, of course, there are celebrities, or “mega” influencers, that contract for millions. Though nano influencers can fit most budgets, Finley said her company is seeing a trend toward more mid-tier influencers, which have 100,000 to 500,000 followers.

“You want a little more reach if you can afford it. It is getting more expensive. Most influencers have agents now and not every brand has an agency to manage that relationship,” Finley said.

That said, managing the relationship is critical and requires time and attention versus a more traditional “spray and pray” approach.

“You have to vet influencers very closely and make sure they’re representing what you want your brand to be. Make sure you have a contract in place with value alignment and clear goals,” Finley said. “Working collaboratively is important. Most influencers don’t want to be dictated by brands as they’re leveraging their cultivated audiences and risking their reputations.”

Finley adds that influencer campaigns are no longer a nice to have and are becoming more of a necessity. That means even independents should explore such a strategy.

“Experiment with hyperlocal influencers who may have smaller but highly engaging follower bases. The shift toward micro influencers is more measurable, it’s more cost effective than doing traditional ad dollars,” she said. “People are seeking meaningful connections but they’re on their phones all the time. From that perspective, it’s authentic, targeted, engaged, and gets a better ROI.”

Contact Alicia Kelso at [email protected]

Hide comments


  • Allowed HTML tags: <em> <strong> <blockquote> <br> <p>

Plain text

  • No HTML tags allowed.
  • Web page addresses and e-mail addresses turn into links automatically.
  • Lines and paragraphs break automatically.