restaurant brand

How to Breathe Fresh Life Into a Stale Restaurant Brand


Restaurant brands need to be refreshed every few years or they start to grow mold like expired bread.

So, how about your brand?  Is it as fresh as your bread?  As relevant as the latest technologies your core audiences are using? Today’s tech-savvy consumers expect their smartphone provider to come up with a new technology every twelve months.  Restaurant industry executives who don’t think the same expectation for speeding up innovation doesn’t apply to their businesses are wrong. Both the tech and restaurant industries share the same consumer, so it’s time the restaurant industry started getting used to the idea of continuous innovation.

Here are a few general tips relevant to any company considering a rebrand — but, like a custom set of replacement dentures, it really should be custom-fit to work best.

1. Embrace Change Willingly

It doesn’t matter how big or small your company is, it is scary to do a brand reboot if you are doing it right.  If you’ve been there since the early days—or have a lot of your own money on the line—you must be pushed beyond your comfort zone.  Change willingly.  If you wait until a brand rejuvenation project is obviously needed, it’s too late. Ask yourself: When is the last time my business did a brand review? Remodel?

2. Work from the Inside Out

When you analyze it, you’ll see that nearly every successful restaurant brand turnaround started in the heart of the house: in the kitchen, with the menu.  Ill-conceived restaurant re-branding strategies start from the outside and work their way in; meaning they announce changes with expensive advertising campaigns, start with new signage and exterior remodels, and then they work their way in with interior remodels and after-the-fact staff training.  Win the hearts and minds of the internal customer (the crew/associates) and come up with killer new signature items your associates believe in and rave about.

3. Consider the Six Senses

  • Sight: Does it look fresh? I mean in terms of actual fresh product but also in terms of other visuals like the paint, fixtures, finishes, fabrics, surfaces, uniforms, fonts, fashions, and overall vibe)?  Go in through the front door instead of the back door; experience the brand as a new customer would and assess the gaps between what’s there and what should or could be there.  Sometimes just a fresh coat of paint can do wonders for perceptions of associates and guests.
  • Smell: Put on a blindfold and have someone walk you around zone by zone of your restaurant.  What do you smell?  Think about it as you go through every zone and ask yourself – should there be a smell, and if so, what should it be and what is it now?  Hint: It should not be the same smell in every zone and at every sequence of the dining experience.  The sense of smell is the most memorable of all of the senses.
  • Sound:  Now go through each zone guided only by your sense of sound.  What should a guest hear (and not hear) in the dining room?  In the restroom?  At that booth near the kitchen?  There are entire companies specialized purely in acoustical design because it’s that important.  Some chefs even consider the sense of sound in the creation of new dishes, meaning, not just how the dish looks and tastes but how does it sound as it is being eaten?
  • Touch:  Do your doorknobs help tell your brand story?  I know this may seem a little far-fetched for some, but even way back in the 1970’s—before ‘brand story’ was even a thing—my dad thought this through in designing his rustic seafood restaurant.  He wrapped the door handles in worn rope and used authentic and antique nautical equipment to help guests feel transported even before they stepped foot in the restaurant.  Such queues add up to create an experience and set the stage for your brand to shine.
  • Taste:  Naturally it’s expected that the food and beverage offerings should taste amazing—and most restaurant executives will claim theirs does.  And I will assume you’re already doing guest satisfaction surveys.  But what about your associates?  Would they recommend their employer as a place to eat?  It’s so important to get this right.  (See Associate Engagement.)
  • Sixth Sense:  Great restaurants have some extra quality to them that you can’t quite point to.  All of the fundamentals are there – and those are great – but there’s something extra that feels a little magical. If you ask me, great restaurants have a soul.  It’s something that can’t be engineered, but the environment for it to exist can be designed.  And you can aspire for this quality.  Be original and build in the magic for your concept.

4. Know the Trends

Before you spend the first dollar planning or implementing, make sure you’ve spent at least a nickel researching and analyzing.  Sure, you need to know your internal trends like you know the back of your hand.  But you also are going to need to own up to the fact that there is more happening in the world than you alone can master.  Make new friends and travel with them.  Bring in an outside perspective.  To start, see these restaurant trends.  You should definitely benchmark and look at what others are doing, but if you mimic another brand yours can only ever be a counterfeit.

5. Focus Your Resources

Not even Coca Cola with a seemingly limitless budget can afford to do everything it wants to do at the same time.  When you do a full top-to-bottom brand review and look to budget out for a reboot, you will inevitably exceed the parameters of what it makes sense to do simultaneously.  This is a natural part of the process so don’t feel discouraged.  Embrace limitations as a source of inspiration to be more creative. Start with the basics.  For instance, how current are your brand standards documents?  You know, things like a professionally crafted positioning strategy, brand personality statement, set of measurable brand promises, and a compelling brand story.  Plan and articulate first.

6. Get a New Dress

Oftentimes, car companies will put a new skin on a proven and renowned chassis.  Maybe your underlying framework and chassis is solid and it’s only your headlights and bodywork that’s out of touch.  Car companies can’t keep getting top dollar and industry accolades if they put the exact same model car out every single year.  Are you retooling your menu and marketing every 6–12 months?  Sure, it costs you too if you have to re-evaluate your menu a couple times per year and repackage, but wouldn’t you agree those boring car companies have it so much worse?

7. Be Brave, Not Boring.

It fascinates me how many companies say in the same sentence, “We’re looking for innovative ideas,” but also “we need some case studies to get the support of the board.”  If it’s truly innovative, you won’t find a case study for it because it hasn’t been done before.  And if you can find a case study for it, it’s not a novel idea and can only, at best, be a commandeering of someone else’s innovation.  A good rule of thumb here is to ask, “Will what we’re doing be considered so unique, exciting and ground-breaking that journalists from around the country (or world) will write about it?”

8. Sometimes It’s Better to Start Over

In some cases, it’s better to just get a fresh start than to keep trying to repair a brand that’s built on a compromised foundation.  Don’t be afraid to change your name or start a new company/brand.  Sometimes you’re better off cleaning the slate and doing something fresh that was unrestrained by the previous brand parameters.

We’re not asking you to depart from your current ‘brand’ with reckless disregard; nor are we pushing you to hire a consultant — or to not trust your gut. I want you to find the courage and inspiration to do something so special and unique that you attract not just guests but associates, investors, and journalists.  If you feel a little lost or overwhelmed, it’s okay.  It should feel that way if you’re doing it right.  Go it alone or hire experienced help.  Companies like mine do this for a living, but you don’t have to hire help.  What you have to do above all else is aspire to do something meaningful and be willing to put it all on the line to bring it into the world.