The Forgotten Ones: Why This Audience Should Be Prioritized For Building Restaurant Brands

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It’s 7pm on a Friday. You’re kicking back after a successful week. You got through a bunch of brand planning exercises, your team finished up several assets that look great, your new campaign is performing well, and the board seems pretty happy with the direction the brand is heading. 

Meanwhile, five miles away in one of your brand’s restaurants, a table of guests looks disappointed. The food was pretty good. So was the company. The atmosphere was nice. And the service was…fine. Fine (or worse) isn’t going to deepen brand love. Fine may just do the opposite – make your brand an indiscernible restaurant that doesn’t inspire loyalty or positive word of mouth. 

Food and drink culture is no longer strictly the domain of big cities. Reviews, social media, food-based shows, and food influencers have created expectations before someone has even stepped foot inside a restaurant. Add to that the increased cost of dining out with more people scrutinizing the value of the experience more closely and you have the conditions for a restaurant brand to go downhill quickly or thrive if you actually nail the guest experience.

As a restaurant brand marketer, you may be overlooking one key audience. Your employees. The brand can’t just live at corporate HQ solely focusing on customers. According to Gallup research, only 27% of employees believe in their company’s values. That indicates a major disconnect between what is being defined in meetings and what the true identity of the brand is internally. Internal communications around the brand should be a collaborative effort between Marketing/Brand, HR/Recruiting, Training, and GMs. Because ultimately, the guest experience is the brand.

We ask employees to take our brand promise and make it believable for customers. We want them to connect emotionally to the brand they’re representing and fulfill the promise that the brand is making.  Outside of onboarding, you need to ask yourself if you’re reinforcing what the brand stands for in a memorable way on a consistent basis.

A study titled “Internal Marketing and Service Quality in Restaurants” found that “as employees have a more positive perception of brand image and quality, they are more likely to be committed to the company brand.” That commitment can show up in how they treat guests and even choosing to stay longer as employees. It can also help keep employees longer and reduce the costs of replacing employees. We may be well aware of what a customer acquisition cost may be, but other departments may not see the financial impact of employee turnover. In the hospitality industry, the cost of employee turnover averages around $5,864 per person. By aligning on internal branding efforts across departments we can also align better to achieve better performance for the company. Beyond the cost associated with losing an employee, there can be an unquantifiable impact on the brand when employees who best embody your brand leave.

We’ve identified five key strategic priorities for internal branding efforts.

1. Have Ongoing Brand Education Sessions

Too often, the education around the brand starts and stops with onboarding. An employee starts their training and learns about the mission, vision, and values of the company. They’re taught how to treat guests, about the menu, dress codes, and other expectations. It’s a lot to expect them to retain all that information. So you have to ask if you’re deepening the connection to the brand throughout their employment? Establishing a regular cadence of communication about what is happening with the brand through internal newsletters, text messages, internal social media groups, and other communication channels. Better yet, make it fun for them. Gamify the education through quizzes and trivia with great incentives to participate. Use stories to show how people have demonstrated great brand ambassadorship and recognize and reward the employees that do. Share shoutouts for great reviews and address negative ones. You can even give the opportunity for employees to be secret diners at other restaurants or other locations and provide feedback. Make them feel valued, just as you want to do with your guests. Not everything has to be uber-produced. A quick video message shot on your phone may suffice. The purpose isn’t to overwhelm them with communication and training, but to make it memorable. 

2. Share Your Marketing Initiatives With Them

Consistent internal brand communications doesn’t have to strictly be about brand education. Those campaigns and marketing initiatives you’re proud of? Make sure to share them internally. We probably all have seen the famous clip of Steve Jobs, upon his return to the brand, introducing Apple’s new campaign to the employees as he returned to the brand. He knew that for Apple to go where it wanted, the employees needed to feel connected and invested in its success. Share your approach in a brief narrative and let them know the “why” behind the assets.

If you hit a milestone, whether it’s getting a great writeup, winning an award, or maintaining a great rating, let them know and reinforce that they are part of that success. You can also invite feedback – if they have an interesting marketing idea give them a way to share it with you.  


3. Treat Your Employees Like Internal Customers

Brand research doesn’t have to only be about external customers. Internal brand surveys can give you a pulse on how the brand is viewed internally. Are we living up to our mission, vision, and values? Having that pulse on internal brand sentiment can help address issues before they show up in the guest experience and provide the data needed to show where there may be a breakdown in communication or training. 

If your brand has an element that is about delighting customers, find ways for brand delight internally. If we can get our employees to love our brand, their actions and their service will influence the guest’s love of the brand as well.

4. Help Them Understand Personas

Just like we do with our marketing strategy, employees who are guest-facing should understand the different guest personas you have and how to create a great brand experience for them. You may have your newcomers/first-timers, regulars, grumpy guest, stressed family, or group revelers. Each one may have different motivations and needs. Work with training to ensure the employees have the tools to create that perfect experience for each one, whether its realizing that a first-timer may need some help with navigating the menu, a parent who knows that their kid may be minutes away from a tantrum if they don’t get something in front of them soon or having the perfect reply for a guest who is unhappy. Our marketing approach to understanding personas can be a great tool for training.  


5. Make It Tangible For Them

You need to demonstrate that being a great steward of the brand isn’t just beneficial to the company, you need to show that it can impact them. Increased earnings through better tips because of better guest experiences, more opportunity for advancement, or even sharing how previous employees who have moved on to other careers have applied their experience. While there are many factors and techniques that have been shown to increase tip percentages, research has shown that tip amount may be weakly related to service quality. That same research also shows that restaurants with a high turnover of employees or those that have disgruntled employees see a negative correlation with their tip percentages. This further underscores the need to have employees feel connected to the brand they represent. One factor that does potentially increase tips? Customers being in a good mood. And a good experience should put them in a good mood. 

In addition, their experience with training materials should look as good as any external brand messaging. Brand books, training manuals, and other internal communications shouldn’t be burdensome to get through. They should match the brand aesthetic and be professionally designed. Remember, these are internal customers so what you present to them should be just as tended to as eternal marketing pieces.

You may think that many of these recommendations fall within the training or HR departments. But if you want to influence how the brand is perceived it is unwise to leave it to other departments to continually reinforce the brand and hope they get it right. Whether its in a support role for those departments or helping to lead the initiatives, you have a responsibility as a brand marketer beyond your customers. By ensuring the often overlooked internal audience understands, believes in, and embodies the brand promise you’ll have a major foundational piece for building a strong brand. 

Response Marketing is part creative agency, part brand consultancy, with a history of helping restaurant brands punch above their weight.

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