Give it a Minute.

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How can you tell if your marketing isn't working or just needs time to work?

By Charlie Hopper

I’ll give away the answer: you can’t. You can’t really know if your marketing will never work, or definitely work soon. (shrug) Marketing is more art than science – or maybe it’s like bad science, where you begin an experiment knowing that, at the end, you probably won’t be able to replicate the results if they’re good, and also you might blow yourself up. Still, you gotta put on the lab coat and break open a pack of new test tubes.

Sometimes the calculations are correct and you get to yell “Eureka!” Arby’s did with its “We Have The Meats” campaign. From the beginning, it was a hit – currently, sales have grown 20 percent since it launched. Will it keep going like that? Unknown.

Other times, results are inconclusive. At first. Initially folks were either baffled or irritated by the reincarnation of KFC’s Colonel, especially when the original comedian portraying the dead icon inexplicably changed to another comedian, then again, then again. Odd. Unexpected. But slowly the brand is turning around, having now grown by 7 percent after years and years of iffy sales.

If YUM! Brands (a corporate name almost perversely difficult to include in a normal sentence) had pulled the plug early on the somewhat bizarre KFC campaign, which might have been a reasonable action, their QSR chicken biz would still be cooking up gimmicks and catchphrases, hoping some were (as the legit marketing term puts it) sticky.

Which leads to the question: How long should anybody – say, you – stay with a marketing effort? How long do you “give it a chance to work,” and when should you give up before you embarrass yourself?

Here are some questions to ask yourself.

1. Is it something nobody else can say?

IN FAVOR OF KEEPING IT:

The best ideas are “ownable,” usually – Sonic Drive-In (not the world’s only drive-in, but one of the world’s few drive-ins with enough presence to justify a TV campaign) features characters sitting in a car eating and talking because at Sonic you sit in a car, eating and talking.

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KFC’s Colonel resurrection is technically something only they could do –their dead spokesman was enough of a character that he can be imitated (as opposed to, say, Wendy’s founder Dave Thomas whose commercials helped the chain grow until he died – after which, the marketing has struggled to find its non-Dave voice; but you couldn’t really put on a “Dave suit” and step into his role).

IN FAVOR OF DITCHING IT:

Maybe you’re the only restaurant at the top of a skyscraper in the city, and you rotate to offer diners a 360-degree view of the skyline as they eat your expensive, unremarkable food – but is rotation something people want?

2. Could other restaurants say it, but they don’t?

IN FAVOR OF KEEPING IT:

Burger King famously wants you to have it your way. Well, you can have it your way a lot of places. Domino’s confronted critics by taking theissue of flavorless pizza head-on: well, a lot of franchised pizza deliverers are considered on the bland side, but now Domino’s is positioned as the company most actively trying to prove itself.

IN FAVOR OF DITCHING IT:

Just because nobody else says it, you can’t be guaranteed anyone will care. I’m thinking about poor Wendy’s again – they’ve been trying to make “fresh never frozen” interesting to people, and it just doesn’t seem to catch on.

3. Are you the only one saying like that?

IN FAVOR OF KEEPING IT:

Lots of places talk about their chicken – only Chick-fil-A uses cows who comically misspell the words of their billboards, or go on covert ops in TV ads. Generally I believe the general public fails to go the next step, usually, and think about the desperation to save their own lives that has driven the cows to encourage eating chicken.

What about those poor chickens who can’t climb onto the billboards with a bucket of fate? Condemned to death by your hunger. Still, that campaign shows no signs of slowing.

IN FAVOR OF DITCHING IT:

Before they switched to their current “back to the roots” idea, I believe Carl’s Jr./Hardee’s was making society worse with their advertising. I’ve noted before how awkward I felt sitting with my wife and daughter when those busty models lingered immodestly on a drip from the enormous, sloppy burger they were holding in a provocative stance. Good riddance. Let’s not deliberately make the world more coarse, marketing friends.

4. Is it addressing a real problem people really have?

IN FAVOR OF KEEPING IT:

This is the most important question: What are you offering people? I’m assuming your budget might not be as powerful as YUM!’s. What are you doing besides showing up and putting the food on dishes or in sacks?

Do you have something to talk about that people recognize as helpful? Starbucks lets regulars order ahead when they’re in a hurry, so their drink is waiting. Arby’s emphasis on better meats gives people the sense that their QSR occasion doesn’t have to be a healthless compromise.

IN FAVOR OF DITCHING IT:

Maybe you’ve solved a problem nobody really has – we worked on a client one time who was determined to throw their operations into chaos by letting consumers build 100 percent customized burgers, from the type of bun, to the types of meats, to dozens of toppings – you-the-diner made every decision. It turned out in testing that this “come up with it yourself” approach was overwhelming and people just wanted a reliable flavor combination that came out of the kitchen as-is.

So, back to the beginning: You’ll have to use your own judgment. Really, there’s no surefire way to know if you’re pursuing a lost cause/throwing good money after bad/[your favorite “being foolish” metaphor here]. This might not even be the right idea for this article. But I’m sticking with it. For now, anyway.

Charlie Hopper, principal/writer of ad agency Young & Laramore, shares views on restaurant marketing at SellingEating.com, as well as in recently published 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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