9 Key Truths to Successful Restaurant Marketing

I’m a restaurant marketing vet, spending over two decades in the industry.  I’ve seen it all from scrambling to change marketing messages due to shrimp shortages (no pun intended) to the one of a kind, made from scratch “Chocolate Piñata” become a smash hit (pun intended).  My time marketing smaller, but growing brands like Uncle Julio’s to seafood giant, Red Lobster, has given me perspective and insight on some basic truths of successful restaurant marketing. Here are just nine of them.

1. Concerted, Integrated Efforts ACROSS DEPARTMENTS

Ok, maybe this is a “no duh” but nevertheless it is critical, especially in restaurant marketing, that Branding and Marketing are in sync with menu development/R&D, Purchasing, Finance, Distribution, Operations, etc..  Here are just a couple of reasons why:

  • A strong brand positioning that is differentiated and meaningful to guests/prospective guests gives guidance to the other teams in determining items that are on, and more importantly, off their task list. For example, if a restaurant brand takes the position of “farm to table authentic French cuisine and experience” then menu development is focused on fresh, not frozen, local ingredients and genuine French recipes. Purchasing should be focused on local vendors who have ingredients used in the French recipes. The brand promise doesn’t stop at the food; things like equipment, smallwares, training, and merchandising are all essentials that operations need consider as well.
  • Marketing can solve problems and capitalize on opportunities. When I was in the Marketing department at Darden Restaurants working on the Red Lobster brand, I learned this first-hand. For example, when operators were stuck with excess inventory of a particular seafood, marketing would work with the chefs to develop a special plate that we would then merchandise in the menu to drive sales and work through the excess inventory at the restaurant level.  On the opportunity side, the purchasing department came to us one year to let us know that snow crab was going to plentiful in the upcoming season.  We moved quickly to test and implement a bottomless crab bucket promotion that was one of the most successful in the company’s history.

Bottomless Crab Bucket Promotion

2. Uniqueness

With laser-focus on unique items or experiences that reflect your brand, your restaurant will stand out and drive interest and visits.  Take a critical look at competitors and answer these questions:

  • Are we different than them?
  • Are we really standing apart from them?
  • Do we need to up our game versus what they are doing?

For example, here in New Haven, there is a Tequila Bar and Southwest Grill called Geronimo’s. They have the largest selection of tequila on the East Coast.  Is that differentiated versus their competitors? Does it drive interest and visits?  There is no question that it does.

Also, review your menu, décor, guest experience from every touch point, and marketing. Is there a signature dish, cocktail, or unique experience, that is compelling enough to drive guests into the restaurant for that one thing? If you do, then there is likely a halo effect driving sales.  Going back to Geronimo’s, not only do they have the largest tequila selection on the East Coast they also recently introduced the “Scorpion Table.”  This is a table that has a terrarium built into it with nine live female emperor scorpions living inside. The table seats up to 10 people, driving a group dining experience that won’t soon be forgotten.

Geronimo's Scorpion Table

3. Mobile First

Today, the majority of online searches for food and beverage (a.k.a. restaurants) start on a mobile device, and the term they are likely searching for is “places to eat near me” as it is growing by 2x year-over-year.  So what do we, as marketers, need to pay attention to?

  • Ensure the mobile experience is as fluid and frictionless as possible. Potential guests should quickly be able to find nearest location, directions, phone number, menu options, as well as, make a reservation or use call ahead seating.
  • Analyze your Google Analytics. Are you getting your fair share of mobile traffic?  If not, are there issues with your mobile optimization?  If yes, how can we improve to convert more mobile traffic to sales?
  • Put yourself in your guests’ shoes and go through the mobile journey yourself. What are you doing well and what can you improve on?  Check out your competitors’ mobile experiences as well.


4. Everything is Social

With 1 in 5 people posting a picture of food on social at least once per month, it’s very likely that the food you serve is being shared on social, whether on Snapchat, Instagram, Facebook or Yelp.  Here are a couple of tips we recommend following:

  • Make sure back of the house and front of the house are aware of this phenomenon. They need to know that the food is on-stage at all times, so they need to take care from how the food is prepared, plated and served.


  • While people sharing their pictures on social is great for exposure, it may also have a residual effect on their satisfaction with the food. In fact, the Journal of Consumer Marketing did a study titled “How consumer-generated images shape important consumption outcomes in the food domain” and concluded that “CGI causes a momentary active delay in consumption, which increases the savoring associated with consumption of pleasurable (i.e. indulgent) foods and, in effect, increases attitudes and taste evaluations of the experience when consumption actually takes place.”
  • Now remember those unique experiences from #2? These can help generate even more buzz on social media. For example, let’s look at the Chocolate Pinata from our client, Uncle Julio’s. This goodie-filled chocolate sensation is a spectacle from the moment it rolls out of the kitchen. And as it travels across the dining room, people take notice. They whip out their phones, snap photos, and post to social – even if they aren’t the one’s who ordered it. How easily shareable are the unique items in your restaurant? It’s these kind of shared experiences that bring people into the restaurant, drive sales, and create something shareable, both at the table and online.

Chocolate Pinata

5. Consider Every Touch Point.

Be the customer, go on their journey with your restaurant from every angle (e.g. dine-in, take-out, catering, group dining) and identify points that can be better aligned with your brand and/or leveraged into a differentiated asset. Here are a few great examples:

  • Dutch Bros. Coffee gives their customers a physical boost with their coffee and an emotional boost with uplifting messages on their cup lids.

dutch bros coffee lids

  • Outback Steakhouse delights to-go customers by bringing their order right to the guests’ cars with their “Curbside Takeaway” program.
  • California Pizza Kitchen puts “Reheat and Eat” instructions right on the takeout pizza boxes.

CPK Reheat and Eat

6. The Right Micro-Influencers

People trust their peers more than advertising and see influencers as their peers. So including local foodies who are micro-influencers can amplify your brand message, drive awareness, and boost sales.

  • Find the right micro-influencers who have strong local followings on social, especially Instagram. Be critical of their content and their followers. If the type and quality doesn’t match your brand, then don’t use them.
  • Many influencers can produce great photography and content. It may be so good that you can negotiate the right to use their content on your website or social properties.  Here’s an Instagram post from a micro-influencer that we used for an Uncle Julio’s program in the Nashville.  His photos are just fantastic for an amateur, and this particular post resulted in over 1,000 likes for the Uncle Julio’s brand and many more eyeballs.

Instagram Post

7. People eat (and drink) with their eyes

Nothing is more compelling than great photos and video to make guests crave what you are offering.  When I worked at Darden Restaurants, we were constantly promoting our offers on national TV with very few hiatuses. It’s not surprising to know that there was a high correlation between what we showed on TV and what people ordered in the restaurants. People simply wanted what they saw on TV– they “ate with their eyes.”  The same is true in-restaurant.  Whenever we’d picture an item in the menu, it’d sell extremely well.  Today, restaurant brands can surround their audiences/guests with craveable, “that looks so good!” photos and videos via paid media (traditional, digital, social), owned assets (website, social media, email, YouTube channel), PR, and in-restaurant.

Table Tent Header

Back to Uncle Julio’s for a moment and let’s talk about their flash-frozen “-321 Margarita” made tableside with liquid nitrogen. In order to market this incredible concoction, we focused on recreating the in-restaurant experience for social. By creating video/image content, we were able to provoke that “I have to have this” feeling in consumers leading to an uptick in -321 Margarita sales across new markets.

Uncle Julio's -321 Berry Margarita

8. Tell stories

Stories are far easier to remember than data.

  • We are so lucky to have so many great restaurants around us in New Haven.  One of those great places is Miya’s Sushi.  There’s nothing typical about it, which makes it a sought after experience for over 35 years.  The story of how Miya’s came to be is on their website and on every menu.  It is hard to forget that this beautiful Japanese woman opened the first sushi restaurant in New Haven County in 1982, and named the restaurant after her daughter. Or their commitment to sustainability and their respect for food sources.  The story they share is endearing, memorable and, well, leaves you feeling like you need to go just to get a glimpse of this family that you just read about and a taste of food that is hyper-local, ecologically responsible and non-invasive. They thread stories through their menu descriptions. Check out this one for their “Toyko Fro.”  How would you ever forget this dish?

Miyas Tokyo Fro

9. Be part of the fabric of the community

Restaurants, even national chains, are part of local communities, just by their existence in towns and cities across the country. Think about it, your restaurant is a place where community, family, friends, co-workers, come together, eat together, are entertained together, and create memories together.  Show your support by sponsoring a local team or event, donate to the local food bank, participate in community functions, join the chamber of commerce, invite community members to friends and family nights, etc.  They are the core of your sales and traffic, show them that you care, that you are invested in being part of where they live and you work.

At Response Marketing, we have decades of experience building incredibly successful restaurant marketing campaigns.  If you want to learn more about us and what we can do for your restaurant brand, just reach out.