Happy Hour Restaurant Marketing

A well-conceived happy hour marketing plan can drive new trial, frequency, check average, party size, and reinforce important brand attributes.

Why should a restaurant create a happy hour?

A happy hour marketing program is typically associated with a bar program (restaurants with beer, wine and/or spirits) and it should be created with the highest purpose being competitive edge by differentiation and innovation, not by lowest price.  A well-conceived happy hour program can drive new trial, frequency, check average, party size, and reinforce important brand attributes.

What time and days are the best and what factors does that depend on?

Focus on peaks, not valleys.  Happy hour programs should be created to extend shoulder periods rather than lifting sales valleys.  All business is cyclical.  When you focus on where you’re strong already, you can get better results than focusing on the down periods.  Often, a sales valley has much more to do with conditions outside of your control rather than circumstances that can be changed by marketing alone.

How do you best market a happy hour?

Different sells.  Innovative ideas will yield far better results than deep discounts.  The more creative and innovative a happy hour is the less it needs to be discounted.  Also devise ways to partner with groups (i.e. social, civic and charitable organizations, dinner clubs, professional organizations, associations, etc) that can help you reach wider audiences on thinner budgets.  Social networking and digital marketing should definitely be part of the mix too.

What is the least effective way to market a happy hour?

Mass media advertising a discount program is a double negative.  It costs more to execute and returns less than normal margins.  Other mistakes include sending messages out of desperation and launching same-old-same-old and expecting organic growth.  Dramatic and organic growth is best effectuated with buzzworthy programs that stimulate word of mouth, new trial, and frequency.  There is an acid test for doing this which will be the subject of an upcoming blog post.

What should you offer in the way of food and beverages for your happy hour?

Salty, small finger foods, but avoid cliché mixed nuts and frozen/fried appetizers.  Menu trends are moving toward bolder flavors, ethnic foods with authentic preparation, and ingredients with more nutritional integrity (i.e. locally grown, sustainable, superfruits, etc).  “Fresh” is one of the most bankable words in modern foodservice marketing.  The most important thing is to leverage your points of difference and communicate in a way that is true to your brand promise, personality, and positioning strategy.

How do you measure the success of your happy hour?

Growth via new trial, party size, and frequency.  Be careful not to cannibalize the existing customer base.  A successful happy hour program drives buzz, stimulates word of mouth, and effectively communicates your point of difference.

Who should be the target customer for happy hours (general public, other restaurant workers, college students, etc.)? How is that determined?

Periphery audiences, not divergent audiences.  For instance, a college pizza joint with heavy users made up of local fraternities and sororities should target young professionals rather family crowds from the suburbs.  This is another example of building on shoulders rather than lifting a valley.  Also, be sure to target “sneezers”.  A “sneezer” is someone who, if they catch a cold, would be most likely to give that cold to the highest number of additional people.  They are in contact with and influence wider circles.  The idea is – why try to convince 40 individual people riding a bus where to eat when you can convince a single person – the bus driver – that can then deliver the other 39?

When you’ve drawn in happy hour customers, how do you ensure their safety and not over serve them?

Professional training.  Documentation for every employee.  Back-up server decisions.  Also, consider independent ‘spotters’, service staff, and a cab service or free ride home program.  Be sure to have a crisis communications plan in place.  Establish your policies, have it reviewed by an attorney, and then make sure every employee is very clear on the protocols.  Tell them once, but then remind them a thousand times.

A few more thoughts…

The best advice I can offer when it comes to creating and executing a happy hour program is:  “Don’t use yesterday’s solutions to today’s business challenges.”  The term happy hour has become cliché and overused.

In reality, many happy hour programs become unexpected discounts for customers, not a pull-them-in promotion that reverberates throughout a community and reverses declining sales.  Happy Hour is “so 1980” that it inspires few to change their habits.  Pubs in England are closing at a rate of 52 per week.  Are they just missing the American concept of happy hour?  No, not at all.  They are missing the bigger picture of innovation.  Yes, the recession is bad in England.  However, while pubs are closing in record numbers, liquor sales are still up in that country.  It’s a shift in behavior.  Running deep discounts for happy hour won’t save a failing pub.  Innovation just might though (if implemented early enough).

Endeavor to conceive a new drink your customers have never heard of or a program so cool, different, and exciting that they can’t wait to sing your praises over their social networks.  Invest in tapping into what comes after the cosmo and what comes after the mojito.  Better yet, invent the next one.  Consumers right now are seeking bolder flavors, cocktails with super-fruits, herbs, “kitchen to the bar”, etc.  Giving a two-for-one on a well drink isn’t what the profitable consumers are seeking.

One way to look at it is to envision two phones.  The first is one of those 1990’s huge Motorola phones (remember the big ones that first came out that were like holding a brick up to your ear?), and then on the other hand envision an iPhone.  Which one is more likely to sell at a higher margin, higher volume, and drive more word of mouth?  Yep, the iPhone.  Because it’s innovative and built with the Apple brand mantra of “Be different”.  The only way to sell a mobile phone made in 1993 is by discounting it.  When envisioning your happy hour program, think of this example and ask yourself – is this happy hour, as currently conceived, more like a 1993 cell phone or the latest iPhone?  Not in terms of product positioning or slick marketing, but in terms of its innovation and ability to drive sales and traffic based on being unique and creative rather than discounted.

Discounting, as we all know, is a sign of a desperate chain run by uninspired and ill-equipped marketers.  As Olgivy famously said, “Any fool can run a discount”.  In spite of the worst recession in decades, Steve Jobs created the fastest selling consumer product in the history of mankind.  Ever see an iPhone with a discount?  Whether you have one unit or one thousand, approach marketing from the standpoint of being different while still holding true to your brand promise, personality, and positioning strategy.  Oh, and be sure to send me an invitation to your new happy hour!