Generically Positive

You know those composite photos where they take a dozen or so pictures of people from a certain geography and use computers to blend all the faces together and what results is an “average face,” the neutral median face of that group? 

It almost always has an overall pleasant, somewhat bland look. Someone generically attractive, but not memorable or even identifiable – you’d have trouble spotting them in a crowd because all their distinguishing features have been removed. That’s what most restaurant marketing is like: generically positive and hard to remember.

Nothing Distinguishing

Guess which restaurant recently ran an ad with a voiceover that said: “At [name of restaurant], we’re bringing new things to the table, like new [name of product], part of our 575-calories-or-less lighter menu. Enjoy fresh tossed [while showing a salad], go fish [while showing a photo of some fish], and taste the lighter side of delicious. At [name of restaurant].” Generically positive. Pleasant. Hard to remember.

A restaurant that is typically right across the mall parking lot from that first one recently ran an ad with a voiceover that says, “At [name of restaurant], fresh is now. Now with lighter options, like the new [name of product]. [pause, then name of restaurant again] Fresh is happening now.”

Pretty much all the distinguishing features have been removed from that ad. All those similar restaurants have been averaged into a single blandly amiable tonality. Notice, both those ads are casual dine. I could cite plenty of other examples. When the chief marketing officers of casual dine concepts approach a TV commercial, almost all of them carefully (and, I suspect, somewhat superstitiously) adopt this cautiously upbeat tone. And they all sound exactly the same. 

Know what? Without having research handy to back up my claim, I’m going to assert that a randomly chosen family considering eating out on a randomly chosen Saturday would settle for the first one if the second one was too busy or vice versa, and nobody in the family would complain. They seem interchangeable. Their communications aren’t helping.

Quick-Service Nightmares

QSR has a slightly different problem. Instead of using mild puns like “bringing new things to the table” and forgettable phrases like “Fresh is now,” most copy for fast food – on TV, billboards, online – is trying a little harder to be humorous. But it’s all the same kind of humor: Exaggerated lust for the product and what the diner will do to get some; absurd mini-skits that play off a product attribute; silly spokespeople with slightly ridiculous enthusiasm for the sandwich. 

Again, like a different group of Photoshopped faces, everything blends together. Now and then in QSR, there’s a brand that understands that they need to stray from The Genial Center of Pleasantly Average Generic Positivity. Chic-fil-A cows are unique. Taco Bell has developed a millennial-approved, good-natured, imaginative aggression.

And you don’t even have to guess which restaurant recently ran an ad with a voiceover that drolly says: “Unless you make your own corned beef, [name of restaurant] is the best place to get a Reuben. If you DO make your own corned beef, send your resume to careers at [name of restaurant] dot com! [name of restaurant again]. We have the meats.”

What to Avoid

Whole books have been written about how to figure out and stick to a communication plan that gets across who your restaurant is, what kind of people you expect to eat there and how to determine and then stick to an appropriate tone of voice. But here are a few things to watch for – symptoms, really. Recognize any of these? It might be a sign that you’re falling into the big, black, pleasant pit in the middle of the road: 

    1. Puns. When there really isn’t anything to say, any kind of point of view or new idea about the restaurant, it often makes the ad or coupon sheet or Facebook post feel “finished” if it contains an apparently relevant pun. And a pun is nothing more than filler for a space that could be used to say something that changes a person’s mind. 
    What to do instead: Present information, and then see if there’s some kind of secondary remark (which might be light-hearted) that can provide context.
    2. Adjectives. Seems kind of unfair to block out an entire grammatical designation, but an adjective is a crutch. It’s usually an opinion – “terrific” – and it’s used when the communicator runs low on ideas. It assigns meaning, but fails to convince. Unless it’s just a plain fact, like “cheaper” or “fried,” it’s just a marketing person asserting a belief they’d like the listener to have, without doing the work to convince them. 
    What to do instead: Describe a relevant action – how did this food come to be? Provide a little context – why are you offering it?
    3. Telling the voiceover to “put a little smile in their voice” when recording. This is a sure sign you’re just creating a generically good-natured ad because if there were a discernible attitude, then your voiceover would naturally reflect that.
    What to do instead: Determine your restaurant’s attitude. Hire an actor who doesn’t sound like all the other voiceovers in the world.
    4. Merely showing photography with a price. Often when it isn’t clear what to do, a restaurant will do nothing, essentially – just “get the news out there” and figure it out later. Now and then, fine, your fans might be somewhat interested until they’re distracted by your competitors’ food-with-a-price. Every time a communication opportunity passes without a point of view, it just means nothing has been decided.
    What to do instead: Decide. Have a meeting and take a stand. Figure out why people like you and develop an own-able method of communicating in response.

You’ll notice that none of those pieces of advice involve speaking less about the product and more about “fun” or “funny” or “brand messaging” (a term I hate because it reveals the people who use it consider the idea of brands to be somehow separate from the delivery of the message and possibly even “fluffy”).  

All my WebMD-style symptoms-to-watch-for are attempting to do is help you diagnose the creeping, silent killer of restaurant brands: Debilitating, chronic generic positivity. Don’t be a victim. There’s probably a more positive way to phrase that. 

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