28 Essential Restaurant Marketing Tips and Tactics

Restaurant and bar marketing tips and ideas lists are often either overly tactical or strategic, rarely blending the two together in a way that is comprehensive and practical. We have rounded up 28 essential restaurant marketing tips – marketing tips, tactics, and ‘mandatories‘ that we suggest should be a part of every restaurant marketing plan.

1. BRAND CONSTITUTION

Before any other marketing activity is embarked upon, the first thing to do is ensure you have a solid brand constitution (brand promises, brand personality, brand positioning strategy, brand purpose and reason for being, brand standards, corporate identity, et cetera, all expertly planned, expressed, and documented). In marketing, you only sell differences, not similarities. Therefore it is important to evaluate all of these materials through the lens of competitive differentiation, alignment with emerging and anticipated industry and consumer trends, and the uniqueness of the brand story and point of view (is it newsworthy?).

2. UNIQUENESS

Your restaurant concept must be distinct or it will go extinct. There are over 16 million restaurants in the world and yours has to be unique enough that it is the one and only of its kind.  The best marketing is word-of-mouth, and if your restaurant isn’t worth writing about, it’s not worth talking about.  Don’t be a copycat; the copies almost always go out of business before the original – and who wants to be (or buy from) a knock-off unless “cheaper” is the primary motivation?  And no matter how hard you try, on any given day, someone else will be cheaper.  So don’t copy or try to be cheaper, try to be more unique, original and worth talking about (note, “betterness” is a hollow claim of the disillusioned, not a uniqueness).

3. AN ELEVATOR PITCH

When someone asks you what you do – what kind of restaurants you run – what do you say? If every member of your senior staff were asked to write down what your brand stands for or to give a description of your restaurants, would they all write down the same thing? If not, this is going to result in confusion rippling out far wider than your corporate boardroom.  As a company or brand leader, you’ll want to give this a test and ensure that all levels of the organization are on the same page and describing the company in a consistent way.  If word of mouth is the best kind of marketing, it makes you wonder why more companies leave it up to the masses to try to articulate their message. Evaluate not just for inconsistencies among the team, but also in terms of appeal.  If you heard your elevator pitch for the first time, would it sound like something you’d heard for the first time (or some variation of ‘good food, good service, good times’)?  Without using boastful claims or superlatives, describe your concept in a way that highlights what’s different and special (and even newsworthy) about it.  If you’re an internationally known chain, consider an elevator pitch that centers on where the company is headed (rather than where it has been or what’s already known about it).  All too often, when the brand constitution is in place, it tends to get put up on a shelf in a 3-ring binder rather than lived in the system.  An elevator pitch (and testing it occasional as well as comparing how guests are describing the brand), is one of many ways to make the brand constitution practical in daily operations.

4. INVEST

For starters, you’ll need to appropriate a budget that’s right for your concept and current conditions. The average is 3% of revenue.  We typically recommend up to 6% of projected first year revenue for new locations (with 1/3 of that spent before opening).  Never should a restaurant company have a marketing budget of less than 1% of revenue.  Even when your company and concept is about word of mouth and relatively averse to marketing, you should still be building a war chest.  Don’t spend it if you don’t have a good plan and reason, but at least put those funds aside.  You’ll need money for R&D, printing and production, web and social presence, content development, photography and other digital assets, media and public relations, CRM systems, charitable contributions, menu development, investment in certain aspects of your overall training programs, and plenty of other uses that don’t classify as advertising.

5. KNOW THE TRENDS

Change is accelerating faster than ever. And never before has this been clearer: restaurant success favors those who innovate. Those perceived to be original—not by knowing the trends but by creating them—are those who leapfrog ahead. To stay out in front, you have to not only analyze the trends, you have to anticipate them.  Better yet, create them.

6. MEDIA RELATIONS

Anyone with a checkbook can buy an ad, but not just anyone gets written about. There are at least 10 unknown chefs better than any given celebrity chef.  The difference for why one is on TV and the others are watching the celebrity on TV is the one on TV hired a publicist and got smart on media relations.  Every restaurant worth going to has a story worth telling.  If you have a story worth telling, you need a publicist to help craft that story and communicate it to media and journalists who will in-turn make your brand famous.  Famous (and even infamous) brands routinely do better than boring brands that failed to stimulate the media.

7. SIGNATURE ITEMS

If someone walks in to your restaurant and asked, “What’s the best thing on the menu”, your staff had better not reply back with “It’s all good.” Think about it – take your affinity to your menu and loyalties of your staff out of the equation – doesn’t “It’s all good” fall flat for you if you hear it at another restaurant?  It BETTER all be good (or what the heck is it doing on the menu?).  What the guest is really asking with that question though is – “What do you do so fantastic that I will love it just for the sincere passion for which your staff described it and because this is the only place I can get exactly that dish prepared exactly that way?”  [More on Signature Items here]

8. SAMPLING

If you have good food, the best marketing tactic you can employ is to give free samples. It works for nearly every product in nearly every industry.  A free, no-obligation sample – if you really believe in your product – is the surest way to convert potential customers into actual customers.  They try, they like, they come back to buy; you deliver at least as good the next time as you did the time before and you’ve got a customer for a very long time.  Why buy advertisements claiming you have great food when you could instead prove it without ever having to buy an ad?  Earned media and word-of-mouth trumps paid advertising any and every day of the week.

9. CAUSE MARKETING

Millennials spend more as a percentage of their discretionary income on eating out than any other demographic category; and they now make up the bulk of all foodservice transactions not only in the USA, but emerging markets as well (like Saudi Arabia, where 60% of the population is under the age of 20). And Millennials are also the most cause-oriented demographic, with 1-in-5 switching brands if it’s for a good cause even if it costs more.  Increasingly, consumers are aligning with good corporate citizens.  The phrase “making the world a better place” really resonates with this new consumer sentiment; a fact not lost on Chipotle and Starbucks, for example (Chipotle’s “Cultivate a Better World” campaign was sheer genius on this front).

10. PROFESSIONAL PHOTOGRAPHY

You probably do not give yourself your own haircut. So why would you take your own photos for your restaurant or hire it out to semi-pros?  It’s tempting with that new state of the art camera you just bought, but trust me, you are better off giving yourself your own haircut than having amateurs take photos of your restaurant or food and using them in advertisements or marketing collaterals.  Go with no photos before ever using clip art, stock photography, or amateur-hour photos.  You may think your menu and staff look great in those self-shot photos, but then again, doesn’t every parent think their kids are good-looking?  Get a pro or go without.

11. MEMORABLE PACKAGING

If your takeaway items go out in generic “Thank You” bags, it is like naming your children “boy” and “girl”. If your food is worth taking away, it’s worth being taken away in branded takeout packaging.

12. NO DISCOUNTS

If you discount your food, what you are effectively saying is that it’s not worth full price. When you discount, you cut your already thin margins into even thinner slices.  And how can you afford the best ingredients, best locations, best associates and give back to your community and industry if you can’t justify a fair-market price and respectable profit?  Sure, in every industry and society there are bottom-feeders who only want CHEAP, CHEAP, CHEAP (and businesses that cater to them).  Like locus, they swarm from one fertile and virgin ground to the next without an ounce of loyalty or appreciation.  Is that who you want to set your table for?  No matter how much you hurt yourself with how nose-bleed of a bargain you are willing to offer, there will always be someone else out there willing to do it for less.  If you appeal only to the locus swarming from deal to deal you will certainly hurt not only yourself, but your staff, facilities and future prospects for all involved.  You charge what you need to be able to deliver an experience and forget about the discounts.  Any damn fool can run a discount promotion, but not just any restaurant delivers memorable and meaningful hospitality, service and experience worth buzzing about.  In the long-run, they always forget the deals (unless you let them really stick it to you); but they never forget the experiences (so charge what you need to deliver magic).

13. DATA CAPTURE

Tomorrow, hundreds, thousands, or even millions of souls will pass through your doors. The day after tomorrow, will you have any idea who they were?

14. REPUTATION MONITORING

The Internet is populated by Trolls who find immense joy in slandering and bullying people and companies online. If you are famous (and great restaurants are in their own right), you will have haters.  Keep a watchful ear out for your restaurants reputation.  While the Internet has made it far easier for Internet Trolls to graffiti your brand, it’s also made it far easier for you to monitor what’s being said about your business.  Set up a Google Alert (it’s free) and – for larger companies – consider more sophisticated reputation monitoring systems or adding the duties to your PR firm’s deliverables.  As CEO, you’ll want to get a summary report at least weekly, but also have to be certain there is a crisis communications plan in place for serious issues that need to be addressed immediately. [Here’s a roundup of 21 restaurant crisis communications case studies.]

15. WEBSITE

There is a less than 5% chance you do not already have a website. You saw this mandatory coming long ago.  Congratulations to you for doing this before you absolutely “had to”.  While you knew it was important then and now though, did you make sure to include the additional mandatories for it?  It’s evolving quickly, you know.  What was optional a few years back is again now mandatory.

  • Online Ordering
  • Professional Photography
  • Social Share, Social Follow, and Social Feed Features
  • Social Proof
  • Data Capture
  • Mobile Compliant/ Responsive Design
  • Menus Up To Date (Mobile Compliant, Printable )
  • Widget for Directions
  • Hours of Operation
  • Careers Page
  • Localization
  • Language Options
  • Media Page; Press Kit
  • Branded 404 Page
  • Effective Keyword Strategy
  • Google Analytics
  • Google Webmaster Tools
  • Google Authorship
  • Blog

And remember, a website is never complete.  It’s something you keep investing in and improving upon until it’s time to give it another really thorough overhaul.

16. BLOGGING

We are in the era of Content Marketing. What that means is if you want to attract influencers you need to be seen as an expert; an authority; a go-to person/company on a subject matter.  92% of companies that blog acquire new customers via their blog. If the CEO of a company is not engaged in social media these days, research shows he or she is not trusted (true among associates, guests, journalists, and every key audience of your company).  A recent study found that 81% of employees believe that CEO’s who engage on social media are better equipped to lead companies in the web 2.0 world, and 82% of consumers are more likely to trust a company whose CEO and leadership team engage on social media and via blogging. Millennials are purpose-minded and buy from brands that reflect their own values, world-views, and that project a purpose.  If you have a purpose you tend to talk about it and enroll others (when you really believe in it).  Today you do that with blogs more than ads.  The CEO needs a blog (not one written by a boring corporate stiff).  The company needs a blog (promote what you believe, not what you sell).  And if there is any other view-point or cause your company supports, it needs to be supported by a blog.  As the legendary American business magnate John D. Rockefeller once said, “Next to doing the right thing, the most important thing is to let people know you are doing the right thing.”  And the best way to let people know what you’re doing these days is through social media, blogging and the-still-timeless art of public relations.

17. GOOGLE PLACES (and other Geo-Searching Technologies)

You can find almost anything online these days. But how about your restaurant?  Does this particular location show up on all of those mobile devices and Internet searches?  While there is a whole lot to SEO, one no-brainer you need to make sure is checked off the list is that each and every one of your restaurant locations is listed in Google Places.  Countless apps and third-party interfaces use Google Places as an engine to populate their restaurant recommendations.  It’s free, quick, and an essential box to check for your restaurant marketing.

18. SEO

You know what drives me crazy? Well, a lot of things, but one is anytime I see some business using dollar signs or stock photos of piles of cash to try to sell something.  Eeek!  It screams of snake oil salesmen and the “SEO” industry is riddled with them.  A shame, really.  Because the search engines (Google mostly), just outranked “personal recommendation from a friend” as the single most important source of information and referrals for restaurants.  What that means is – your business has GOT to be found online.  And SEO is perhaps the most under-used and under-emphasized tool for restaurant and foodservice companies today.  Start with this – make a list of 100 phrases that if a prospective employee, investor, franchisee, partner, journalist, or guest were to type into a search engine (like Google) that you’d want to have your brand show up in the #1 position for consistently.  Next question – how many of those phrases does your brand (and not just your brand really, you’ve got to think this through down to the logical end – which specific page on your site should a visitor arrive at should they type the phrase, see your page listed in the search engine results page, and then click through to?).  A whole book could and should be written on this subject specific to restaurant and foodservice marketers.  What you should know for know though is that the #1 listed organic result for searches gets 37% of all of the traffic (put #2 and #3 together and they don’t get that; and if you’re on the second page of the results you’re likely to see no traffic at all).  This is staggering when you think about it.  Think about phrases like “Bruch in…”, “Best Steakhouses in…”, “Best Restaurant Stocks…”,…again, make the list of the top 100 you should own…do you currently?

19. ONLINE ORDERING

The major pizza chains are already processing more than half of all of their orders online and have been for a few years. They’ve gotten very good at it, in fact.  Some moved on quickly to mobile orders and now several are already finding success with SMS/ text orders, Apple Watch ordering, and even simplifying ordering down to emoticons.  Domino’s even went so far as to say they are a technology company that sells pizza, not a pizza company with fresh technology. Being able to order online has now become a mandatory for all restaurants, not just delivery restaurants.  What would you sell online if you don’t order delivery, you ask?  Start with gift cards, merchandise, special events, or even orders for pickup.  Start practicing though and get used to the idea you are going to need to know a lot more about e-commerce in the future (regardless of how much you know about it already).

20. EMAIL MARKETING

Email marketing still works and is one of the most effective direct response tools you can use. Building and maintaining a healthy email subscriber list should be a measured performance indicator for your marketing team.  Be sure your system requires a double opt-in and includes an unsubscribe link in the footer of every email. Only send timely, relevant, value-laden emails; not promotional drivel. For large lists and multi-unit restaurant companies, be sure to incorporate localization and segmentation strategies as well as planning infrastructure for CRM capabilities on par with all of your favorite e-commerce sites.  While your audience will not hold you to exactly the same standard of Amazon.com, Netflix, or Spotify, you share customers with them and will be compared to at least some degree in terms of how well you know them and how convenient and frictionless their digital experiences are with your company.

21. LINKEDIN

This is not the best place for you to mass-market your concept or do carpet-bomb marketing, but if you are the type that subscribes to the idea of friends in high places, you will find LinkedIn to be one of the surest sources of new ones. Be respectful and follow the rules; do not go nuts trying to make connections out of your league.  That said, you absolutely have to be on this platform and you should invest the time in making new friends here.  Need to find:  New franchisees?  New lenders or investors?  Catering clients?  New members of management?  You will find all of that and more on LinkedIn.  Of all the social media platforms out there, LinkedIn has the highest caliber of professionals.  In a single week, I made new connections with senior management of hospitality companies posting more than $200 billion annually.  Another way of thinking about it – within a week, I was connected directly to executives leading literally hundreds of thousands of employees; employees that will never connect directly with these executives in a full career, but I did with just a few minutes and clicks.  If you want to be connected in this industry, you need to be linked-in (on LinkedIn).

22. BIRTHDAY AND ANNIVERSARY PROGRAMS

Half of all adults dine out on their birthday or anniversary. Okay, so there are 7 billion people on the planet…that means the biggest dine-out day of any culture or country is the day of birth or anniversary of those for that particular day.  Sure, as a single day, many other holidays (like Mother’s Day, Valentine’s Day, etc.) overshadow those every day birthday and anniversary celebrations, but if you are promoting a restaurant or hotel and don’t have a birthday or anniversary program in your marketing mix you are missing an opportunity.

23. FOUR WALLS FOCUS

You should not spend a penny on advertisements that go out beyond your four walls until you have perfected internal marketing. Why would you spend money advertising to people who’ve never heard of your business and will likely never become customers no matter what, yet ignore the employees (“internal customers”) of your business?  The single most important audience of all of your stakeholders are your employees.  Think it’s the investors/investment community?  Okay, what happens if your best investors get suspicious about the health of the business and go to the employees instead of your ad-men?  You have got to earn the hearts, minds, and loyalties of your associates before you can ever expect to attract or keep a guest happy.  Start first with the associates.  Enroll and engage them.  Then work from the heart-of-the-house out (that means in the kitchen – getting signature items down pat, building competencies and capabilities, an enviable menu that’s game-changing; then moving marketing to the dining room; then to the property-line; then to the neighborhood; then out via social media and media relations channels; then – after all of those areas of opportunity have been fully maximized and are working like a well-oiled machine – then you can think about talking to ad agencies and such).  Great marketing will just kill a bad operation faster.  You’ve got to work from the inside out.  Resist the temptation to work from the outside advertisements back toward the internal experience.  Sure, you can admire the national advertising campaigns of the world’s largest restaurant chains.  But don’t think they got to be that way by advertising the way they do now.  They got to be big by doing what you should be doing now (in fact, in many ways, they are the ones forgetting what built them and being sold a false promise).  A chain is only as strong as its weakest link.  Big chains became big chains not by national advertising campaigns, but by winning on a block-by-block, unit-by-unit basis.  Far before they could afford national advertising, they knew to focus on building the company from the inside out (the associates, the product, the experience, the local connections…the other stuff came MUCH later).

24. NEIGHBORHOOD MARKETING

Research has shown that 80% of a typical restaurants customers originate within a 10-minute drive-time of the restaurant. Even if your restaurant is located within a touristic or transient market, you’ll still find this ‘originates’ rule to be true.  While destination restaurants can draw from a much wider radius (for a lucky few, guests will travel the world and plan a special trip around a destination restaurant), the majority of restaurants should be focusing their outreach locally.  Applebee’s is a great example of a restaurant chain forgetting this important principle.  The brand DNA was rooted in being the first national restaurant chain to be a “neighborhood bar and grill.”  Yet, over time, marketers forget this and rather than build their marketing from the bottom up on a block-by-block basis, they attempt to ‘leverage our scale’ with big budget national advertising campaigns. No matter how large you get, you should keep your marketing oriented locally (investing from the inside out, and from the bottom up).

25. MENU INNOVATIONS

In our blog we have a lot of resources related to menu innovation, engineering, development, and design. We can’t talk about restaurant marketing mandatories though without addressing the menu.  It’s where the rubber meets the road.  If the menu if off, the restaurant fails; no matter how good the other marketing was.  You have to consider competitive differentiation, relevance and appeal to your audience,  item placement, photography, copy, pricing, merchandising strategies, plating and presentation, and a whole lot more.  Naturally, there’s so much to it that books have been written on the subject and chains have whole departments dedicated to menu innovation (not just culinary and beverage R&D departments, but folks who do nothing else except menu analysis and engineering).  I have written a book on this (much of the content is available free on our site) and we also conduct public and private workshops on the subject.  What I want to emphasize here though, is that your marketing team should be not only involved, but leading menu development initiatives (with your culinary and beverage teams reporting in to the marketing function) and that before you spend money on marketing be sure your brand and menu are where they need to be.

26. BEVERAGE INNOVATIONS

When you go to the grocery store, you’ll notice that there are an ever-increasing variety of new beverages available. Sure, Coke and Pepsi still get half an aisle for their sugary sodas, but more and more shelf space is opening up for alternative beverages – usually the more healthful and artisan stuff (coconut water, organic juices, probiotics, vitamin waters, etc.).  Makes you wonder why you don’t see more innovation happening with beverage in restaurants, doesn’t it?  It’s because it is just one of those overlooked areas of opportunity.  Whether you serve alcohol or not, you can do a lot for your competitive differentiation and profit margins by getting creative with beverage innovations.  Check our blog or signup for our newsletter for beverage trends to get more ideas.  There’s a lot happening with trends like house-made sodas and bitters, heirloom and farm-to-table ingredients, the kitchen-to-the-bar movement, nanobreweries, micro-distilled, house-infused cocktails, and much more.  You should definitely be thinking beyond coffee, tea, and bag-in-the-box sodas.  If you sell a commodity that everyone else sells, you have more complications with price perceptions and positioning than if you carry items less comparable.

27. HOLIDAY MARKETING

In the US alone, $13 billion is spent on Valentine’s Day with 35% of the gifts given being for dining/eating out. 80 million American’s dine out on Mother’s Day and 50 million eat out on Father’s Day.  More than 1 billion Muslims observe Ramadan around the world, with significant impact and opportunity on restaurants. Every culture in the world recognizes and celebrates a holiday and there is a holiday for nearly every day of the week (however obscure some of them may seem, there’s at least someone it’s important to).  While you certainly shouldn’t fill your promotional calendar with daily holiday celebrations and promotions, it is always striking to me how few restaurant marketing plans have thoughtfully constructed holiday marketing campaigns.  Every year when you build your marketing plan, be sure to start with a calendar that includes major internal and external events (holidays, sporting events, political calendars, etc.) to look for opportunities and avoid conflicts for other planned promotional activities.

28. ORIENTATION AND ENCULTURATION

Starbucks spends far more on training than they do on marketing. They always have.  And it shows in the guest experience.  Starbucks workers see themselves differently than McDonald’s employees, even while their pay may be similar.  This is because Starbucks has done a far better job with branding – not branding in the sense of advertising, but branding in the sense of associate engagement and enculturation.  The average cost of training a new hire is $1,500 for crew-level positions; and the average employee turnover for quick service restaurants (QSR’s) is 100% (with some as high as 300%).  Often, the cost of training is hidden in the labor cost as it’s often not broken out separately.  Even with just one location, it’s clear that training is costly (and not training is even more costly).  This is why I don’t understand why so few multi-unit restaurant chains have invested in well-produced orientation videos, systematized skills assessments, instructional design, e-learning, training games and exercises, or cross-functional collaboration between the training department and the marketing department.  Training should be as fun and immersive of an experience as playing a video game.  If you’re spending more on marketing than training, consider reallocating some of those funds.

29. SHIFT MEETINGS

You win and lose guests on a touch-point by touch-point exchange. If your managers are not holding pre-shift meetings, it’s like a coach that doesn’t have the time or concern to have a half-time coaching session.  If your favorite sporting team lost and you found out the coach was just too lazy (or absorbed watching computer monitors in the back-office) to coach his team before the game and at the half-time point, wouldn’t you feel that he was to blame (or at least that he could have done more)?  If you or your subordinate managers are not having pre-shift meetings with the associates, you’re missing one of the most vital opportunities to ensure consistency and culture.

30. LIMITED TIME OFFERS (LTOs)

Many large restaurant chains have gotten carried away with their LTO’s and have over-used this tool; for many, leading to operational fatigue, bloated menus, and consumer confusion. However, LTO’s will always be around as it is a promotional tool that taps into the economic and psychological principle of scarcity.  It goes back to the days in human evolution when food was harder to come by than it is today with the ubiquitous drive-thru.  When there was even a perceived fear of food shortages, it stirs something deep inside of us all.  Scarcity is why diamonds are so valuable – companies intentionally keep the supply low to increase the rarity and therefore value.  LTO’s are a terrific short-term promotional tool to test new items and stimulate demand without long-term commitment or investment.  This is one of the surest quick-hits for many restaurants; but careful not to over do it or you will dilute the effectiveness, confuse your stakeholders, and unnecessarily burden your operations teams.

31. GIVE MORE THAN EXPECTED

You may notice the title of the list said 28 but we provided 31 instead. Call it a bakers dozen if you like, but be sure to always look for ways to give more than you promised and more than was expected.  That will always go further than any contrived marketing campaign or promotional tactic in the long run.


Thank you (and congratulations!) for reading this all the way through.  I apologize if it in any way seemed derogatory or pushy.  My job though is to cut through clutter (for you, me, all of us).  I don’t want you to miss opportunities because I tried to word things like a trade publication or your biggest supporter would.  I wanted to word things in a way that gets through to you.  You’re probably already doing a lot of the above right (or else you wouldn’t have read this far).  You’re likely already surrounded by smart and good-intentioned people that have brought some of these (and other) points up already (maybe even forcefully so).  But you know this is all just way too complicated and fast-moving to think any one company has it all under wraps.  You are reading this far because you want and need someone to tell you the unvarnished truth.  That doesn’t mean you have to agree with every word.  It means that you are one of the few who get it.

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