restaurant marketing audit

What a Thorough Restaurant Marketing Audit Should Cover

A restaurant marketing audit should be as common and as much a part of life for restaurant chains as a physical exam is for people. It’s something that should be done every 36-months as a standard routine.

The restaurant industry is an incredibly complex one. Add modern marketing to the mix (which is complex, in and of itself), and that challenge is magnified. In the past decade alone, media has evolved to a point where it would be nearly unrecognizable to the restaurant chains of 2007. Yet, many restaurant companies still parade yesteryear’s tactics and promotional approaches as up to date (‘well, we are posting it to Instagram now though and using hashtags,’ some rationalize).

Perhaps even more troubling is that many restaurant chains fail to perform periodic, top-to-bottom audits of their marketing objectives, strategies, and activities and carry-over last year’s plan with modest tweaks (on the opposite spectrum, for example, 3G Capital insists on Zero-Based Budgeting for brands it buys, like Burger King). With restaurant marketing budgets rapidly shifting toward digital, social, mobile, earned media, content marketing, and corporate social responsibility, it can be difficult to narrow the focus and find the right balance of traditional and new media, fresh approaches versus tried-and-true programs that should carry on.

Restaurant marketing audit recent changes

The fact that modern restaurant marketing has become so complex has not been lost on CEOs and CMOs. Many new “marketing mandatories” have emerged that require a CMO to have a commanding knowledge of not just the traditional and emerging marketing disciplines and specialized skills required, but how to apply them and integrate it all together with a seamless omnichannel integration strategy. The modern chain restaurant CMO must possess expert knowledge of positioning, messaging, and technical requirements spanning: digital, social, mobile, crisis communications, reputation management, earned media, content marketing, loyalty and CRM, branding and corporate identity, art and creative direction, broadcast, print, production and fulfillment, e-commerce and self-ordering technologies, field and local store marketing, menu merchandising and design, SEM/SEO, advanced analytics, and so much more.

These are just a few of the marketing disciplines involved, they must also master and lead all of that while simultaneously possessing expert and real-time insights (as well as long-range forecasts) for emerging consumer trends and evolving dining behavior, direct and indirect competitive threats, plus they need to manage to inform and enroll a long list of constituents such as colleagues, help effectuate employee morale and Associate Engagement programs, the media, investors, franchisees/franchisors, vendors, partners, and perform well in all of those ad hoc consensus-building committee meetings and special projects that pop up.

And, for many, this is intensified by what is usually a responsibility stretching many brands and geographies (in some cases, for our multi-national clients with dozens of countries and dozens of brands, it’s often a wonder to us how they keep their sanity as few others understand just how complex it all is; most still are expected to get even more done and with fewer resources).

But, sure, let’s have them conduct their own top-to-bottom marketing audit in addition to all of the aforementioned and flag everything they’re not doing, should be doing better, did wrong, and need to be doing in the future, and bring that back to the same CEO that asked for said performance appraisal. You see the challenge herein, we trust.

What is a Restaurant Marketing Audit? What Should it Include?

Companies — like countries — should have a constitution. A sacred and honored document that spells out the rules, promises, norms, laws, and aspirations for its people and stakeholders. We all know what this looks like for a country, but what does it mean for a company (and how does that relate to a restaurant marketing audit)?

A brand constitution goes beyond business plan jargon like a vision and mission. It should ultimately get to the “purpose” (beyond profits alone) of the company, its reason for being, how it improves the communities and constituents it serves (guests, associates/employees, investors, partners, etc.). It should define promises it makes to each.

It should also address important elements such as the Culture Manifesto for the company, the positioning (and competitive counter-positioning) strategy, the personality, and establish the norms and nomenclature of the company in a way that can be told through story and iconography that helps to instill the company virtues and values in a way that resonates on an emotional level.

We know you’re thinking, “Okay … you had me up to a point. This is starting to sound less tangible and more esoteric than I was expecting.” Hang in there … 

Before any proper marketing audit can be conducted, certain baselines and benchmarks must be established and known. Any advisor that jumps into quantifying performance and a gap analysis on marketing without getting clear about the bedrock of the brand is going to come back with a purely tactical checklist set of findings that can result in inconclusive and misleading findings. Also important to note here – the CMO/head of marketing can help you articulate all of this (if it hasn’t been done already), but the intent of it must be decided upon and defended at a board-level.

Now, assuming these things are in place, let’s move on to the meat and potatoes you are looking for.

The marketing audit should review all historical, current, and planned marketing activity to perform a comprehensive gap analysis and net out a prioritized list of improvement opportunities (for ‘current state’ and ‘future state’ planning). This means it should assess everything from the usage and efficacy to the relevance and cost/benefit analysis. It should address people, processes, tools, technology, systems, and infrastructure through the lens of performance and productivity, as well as an evaluation of both the tangible and intangible contributions to the company.

The Questions to Ask During a Restaurant Marketing Audit

As the saying goes, “There’s no point making more efficient that which shouldn’t be done at all.” Meaning, restaurant marketers are often carrying around a stale bag of tactics that are easy to get approval on while being seduced (and attempting to seduce others) into chasing the latest shiny thing of the day (yesterday it was Foursquare, today it’s Instagram and Snap; tomorrow it will be something else).

While we often advocate being an early adopter (as it can pay more in benefits of earned media than was even hoped for with base platform), most companies today are stretched too thin and trying to achieve ambitions within OPEX parameters that would require CAPEX-level investments. The new media is pushed down to younger team members our outsourced to cool agencies while the CMO is shouldered with the big picture messaging with the CEO and BOD. The result is often that tactical seems strategic and the truly strategic is put off to a future budget debate that happens in a room filled with purple elephants (things most people can see but far fewer want to risk political capital to address head-on).

Oh, right, back to the questions one should ask: there’s a LOT of them. The better the questions the better the answers. In other words, the more focused and skilled the questions are asked and answered through this process, the stronger shot you have of helping enable the right shared insights, understanding, and actionable plans that will be required to not only keep current but to leapfrog the competition and those in your category.

So, a few questions below, but there are literally hundreds to thousands of data points that must be evaluated at some level through such a process (good thing you only need to do it every three years or so, right?):

Budget & Allocation

  • How much should we allocate? Are we spending it in the right places? What’s the best allocation of the budget (across brands, media, geographies, times of the year)?
  • Which marketing channels are (now, and becoming) the most effective/least effective?
  • Do we have the right marketing chart of accounts? What of this should be CAPEX versus OPEX? What kind of OPEX requirements will we have in the years ahead to modernize and maintain a best-in-class marketing function and capabilities?

Measurement & Management

  • Are we measuring the right metrics? Do we even have the capability to measure the ones we need to be measuring (in real-time)? Do our team members have the right goals, KPIs, and dashboards to monitor results and efficacy?
  • How do we know if the marketing is working and what to continue/discontinue, increase/decrease? Do we have the right internal and external benchmarks to compare against?
  • Are we providing the right insights to the rest of the company to help make them more effective and aware as well? Do executives get what they need? Do field and unit-managers get what they need? What about the communication of status and performance to/from our partners (franchisee’s/franchisor, investors, media, etc.)?
  • Do we have the right agencies, advisors, and analytical insights; not just from a technical point of view, but in terms of the wider issues (re)shaping our industry and our place in it?

Personnel & Staffing

  • How are staff members performing in their current positions?
  • What tools and technology should they be provided with to improve their performance?
  • Who do we need (what positions and people), now and in the future?
  • How should our marketing department be structured to be more effective moving forward? By brand, geography, channel, campaign, something else?

Marketing Effectiveness

  • Are we using the proper messaging for competitive differentiation? Does it resonate on an emotional level (or sound like ‘me-too’ marketing)?
  • How is our company and its brands perceived? How could this perception be enhanced?
  • How should our marketing approach be similar or different across different regions? What about our pricing? Promotional strategy?
  • Does our company have an effective overall marketing strategy including digital and social media? Are there gaps within the marketing function? If so, how should priorities be established? Do we have the budgets and buy-in we need to do the job we’re tasked with doing?


  • Do our physical brand and digital brand match? From menus to mobile – do they all feel and work in a seamless and intuitive, brand-centric way?
  • CSR and Earned Media – Are we buying or earning more media (this is increasingly a metric for evaluating relevance and resonance)?
  • Do we have the understanding, buy-in, and support we need to achieve the goals we’re tasked with as a department (the board of directors, CEO, CFO, dotted-line reports; those above us, below us, and lateral to us in the organizational chart)?
  • Are we where we need to be in terms of what is centralized and what is decentralized? Sure, we need to keep the brand standards centralized and protected, but if we overly-centralize everything, how can we get the buy-in and bottoms-up support we need from the units and field to harness local store marketing and wider engagement?
  • Are we doing enough as a marketing and communications department to win the hearts and minds of our team? Is our internal communication up to snuff? Are we supporting Associate Engagement and morale, or are we forgetting the importance of that with our externally-oriented communications and campaigns?
  • Do we have the latest and most reliable intelligence on consumer trends and the external forces and factors that will bear down on our performance? Are we doing what we need to do to help others in the company understand and prepare for the implications of these shifts in sentiment and share?

The Importance of a Thorough Restaurant Marketing Audit

Comparing the marketing strategies of restaurants today with those from decades ago, the most striking impression is how much things have shifted, with many marketing strategies falling into obsolescence while others take their place. Over ten years ago, Pizza Hut was utilizing newspaper ads to market its pizza-shaped headphones. Today, the chain emphasizes its use of Facebook, Twitter, Snapchat — outlets that didn’t even exist in the 1990s.

Reorienting marketing operations to these changing environments and opportunities will require an investment, and a third party with an objective view and the know-how to dig deep, but the return on that will far outweigh the time or financial investment. In essence, an audit is meant to hold marketing dollars accountable, so they perform at the highest level. Not only can a thorough restaurant marketing audit increase a chain’s marketing efficiency and effectivity, it can have a tremendous effect on the bottom line, too.

So, How Much Does it Cost?

There are a lot of ways to answer this but a rule of thumb is “never spend a dime on marketing until you’ve invested at least a penny planning how to do it most effectively.” That fails to satisfy the curiosity though, of course. The more nuanced answer is that it depends on the complexity of the system and the resources that must be applied to having a team as or more experienced as your own apply a data-driven approach and rigorous analysis to historical, current, and future state evaluation and the development of actionable insights and recommendations.

Most companies simply aren’t doing most of the mandatories and this can be spotted at a 30,000-foot view. We typically recommend that every 36-months you will want to earmark roughly 5%–10% of that year’s marketing budget to such a process (expect a minimum of a $150k price tag for a qualified firm; most that perform this work for middle-market chains will be in the $150k–$1.5m range and not too well-suited to work with smaller organizations that cannot comfortably afford this level of investment due to their own cost constraints with regard to the time/team resources required to perform such work at the necessary levels).

And How Long Does it Take?

Depending on the size and complexity of your system – and the availability of data to analyze – such a process can run anywhere from six weeks to six months (our firm, for example, would typically sequence such a project over a 6 – 12-week period). Another factor will be geography and how much fieldwork the company performs on your behalf (field observations and analysis can often prove invaluable in identifying real-world usage cases, guest journey mapping, interviewing staff and management, facilitating consumer research, and so on).

Is It Worth It?

It often surprises us, even still, that some organizations spend tens of millions per year on marketing and go for years and years on end with a nagging feeling they’re not as efficient and effective as they could be, yet still are also reluctant to invest a tiny fraction of that budget to hold it accountable; to conduct a proper audit and invest in the analysis and plans that they know will be required to ensure relevance and high-performance in the future.

At the same time, the easiest way to assess and assure performance (present-state and future-plans) is to audit what’s most important and to allocate where resources will be most effective. Seems easy enough to extrapolate from this the value of endeavoring to audit and plan marketing with the sensibilities of any astute investor: an ounce of planning is worth a pound of prevention (and 20 grams of analysis is found in every ounce of planning).


Aaron Allen & Associates is a leading global restaurant industry strategy firm serving senior executives of chain restaurants, hotels, and prestigious private equity firms. We work alongside senior executives of some of the world’s most successful foodservice and hospitality companies to visualize, plan and implement innovative ideas for leapfrogging the competition. Collectively, our clients post more than $200 billion, span all 6 inhabited continents and 100+ countries, with locations totaling tens of thousands.