Your Name Where?

Restaurants Alternative Marketing copy

What's the right place for your name to be when you're getting your name out?

By Charlie Hopper

Advertising works. I believe in it. Especially thoughtfully strategic messages executed with an awareness of the general standards and expectations of a brand’s potential customers.

But it’s summer as I type this.

People may not pay as much attention to advertising when the sun sets so late. What can you do to get your name in their brain? (And if it’s late summer or early fall as you’re reading this, maybe think of this as a scorecard: how much of this did you do?)

First, you have to know who you’re talking to. But after that, well, there are all kinds of options.

1. One of the Locals

How do you infiltrate awareness, say, for example, when folks are playing softball? (That question itself is a softball, right?) Try a sponsorship – simple enough. What’s in the outfield, a banner on the fence? Let’s buy one of those, too, and a program ad. Do you understand your brand voice enough to say something beyond just a logo?

What about some kind of reference to your restaurant that makes sense in a softball setting – not a pun, not a forced association, but something relevant? Do you serve something that would be a good reward? Can you seat a whole team? Give it some thought and if you can’t think of any relevant connection between your restaurant and the game, well, a plain logo is probably better than a hacky pun.

2. The Usual Merch

Are you a dull multi-national corporation? Maybe people won’t clamor to do your advertising for you. But if you’re an interesting restaurant with an attitude – any attitude at all – I wouldn’t be surprised if people wore your name around. I have a T-shirt from a coffee shop in Lancaster, Pa., called Mean Cup. “What’s that?” ask people when they see the cartoon of an angry mug on the front. I tell them. Same thing with my T-shirt from The Red Bar in Florida.

Maybe I don’t frequent the hottest spots, but I don’t ever see people wearing the naughty, double-entre T-shirts vended by Joe’s Crab Shack that say “I’d hit that” with a picture of a crab or some venereal disease joke. Maybe it’s just the crowd I don’t run with. But a little subtlety and a cool design will probably market your 24-hour restaurant better than “__[YOUR RESTAURANT NAME]___ does it all night!” It’s your call. You know your customers better than I do. I hope.

3. The Unexpected Merch

KFC is marketing a range of weird merchandise from necklaces that say, “finger lickin’ good” in gold-plated script, to socks and a pillowcase with a photo of a romantic, drowsy Colonel. Last year Taco Bell sold out of pretty rings that said, “taco bell” and “live mas.” A few years ago, Applebee’s sold inflatable life-size dolls to stick behind your computer so you could slip out to get their lunch special, calling them “Lunch Decoys.”

Restaurants AlternativeMarketing2 copyWhat’s with all the weirdness? Well, it really works with a certain segment, which overlaps nicely with the segment that spends a lot of money in fast food and entry-level casual dine restaurants like those.

Advice: the key to being enticingly odd and attractively weird is to lay off the actual salesmanship. Nobody wants to feel the cold hand of commerce resting on their shoulder while they’re being silly. Let your merch be weird, and it piques a millennial’s (and oddballs of any generation’s) interest. Let it be a sales-wolf in humorously self-aware sheep’s clothing, and you lose what you gained. Those Applebee’s dolls? Dangerously close to making sense. Fortunately they’re kinda pervy. So now they’re effectively weird again.

4. The Road

Food truck. You probably already thought of it. Maybe you can afford one or none. Still, what better way to literally get your restaurant out among the people in the summer. Surely at least some of your menu fits in one – if Olive Garden can do it (they focused on breadsticks), you can too, if you can afford it.

5. Party!

Nathan’s still owns competitive eating – lots of restaurants try to get Joey Chestnut and friends to make them as famous, and they do get their time in the spotlight.

One local restaurant had such spicy shrimp cocktail sauce, it added a new spin on speed-eating: pain. It definitely makes the local news. Do you have something fun for people to overeat? McDonald’s tried sponsoring South by Southwest a couple years ago. That crowd wasn’t really lovin’ it, especially when they made a public relations stumble by expecting bands to work for free even though they’re practically the symbol of capitalism.

The next year they brought virtual reality Happy Meals to paint – a little closer? Essentially, this just points out that if you’re going to sponsor a party, make sure you’re an appropriate host. Chipotle went a different way – they grew a festival from scratch. “The CULTIVATE Food, Ideas and Music Festival.” It might sound suspiciously like “educational fun,” something we learned in school to be wary of, but still: Chipotle manages to book enough eager bands that enough folks turn out hoping for free burritos and it works. Then they get to bring up all their issues.

6. Phone Addicts

Where are their eyes? Their eyes are on their social media. Right now, most of your customers are flicking through their feeds. (They’re called “feeds,” for pity’s sake.) Morton’s once saw a guy on Twitter drolly (and with no real expectations) suggest they meet him at the Newark airport with a steak. They did it! Wow.

Similarly, Burger King’s been great about challenging digital conventions – recently they activated everybody’s Google Home devices by directly addressing them from a brief ad and asking the computer to read the Whopper Wikipedia entry. Google shut it down – similar to how Facebook shut them down awhile back when they imaginatively challenged people to “sacrifice” for a free Whopper by deleting ten people from their friends list in exchange.

Why ask people to give up their friends (and tell them they’d been defriended for a burger)? Because it’s a stupidly mean thing to do. See point no. 3 and the effectiveness of weirdness. Facebook protested that notifying people who had been dropped might violate privacy. When the game stopped being stupidly mean, BK sensed that their audience would lose interest. And they’d gotten all the attention they needed from it anyway.

Advertising still works. But why not try something else – it’ll be your own little summer vacation from media traffic.

Charlie Hopper, principal/writer of ad agency Young & Laramore, shares views on restaurant marketing at, as well as recently publish books "Nuggets, Nibbles, Morsels, Crumbs: Selected Restaurant Marketing Columns from Food & Drink International," and "Selling Eating: Restaurant Marketing Beyond the Word Delicious." Hopper is known for his unique and witty perspective on food and restaurant brands and is a regular contributor to Food & Drink International.



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