9 Marketing Tips for a Successful Restaurant

Dozens of new restaurants opened in San Diego County last year. Some flourish; many more already have – or will – close their doors. Why?

Sometimes it’s a concept gone awry; sometimes the importance of service has been underestimated; too often, it’s doing nearly everything right, but forgetting the importance of effective marketing.

Is there a formula to help a restaurant succeed?

The Basics: Recognize that while you can usually entice new customers to visit once – the real challenge is motivating them to return. Customers may never come back unless youve done everything right.

Visit a consistently popular restaurant and take a careful look around. Chances are it’s immaculate: The servers are courteous, attentive and well-groomed, and the food is aesthetically appealing and delicious.

Impeccable service, cleanliness, perceived value and a clear-cut identity – these comprise the fundamentals on which to build a successful marketing program.

Establishing and building upon a distinct “personality” is central to an effective promotional program. An eatery that features colorful tropical décor yet serves sushi and Italian delicacies is contradictory; and, difficult to market. Design your restaurant to be consistent with your cuisine and style, and craft your message accordingly.

Differentiate yourself from the competition. Your restaurant offers authentic south-of-the-border-style specialties? So do dozens of establishments throughout the county. What particularly sets you apart? Identify what makes you unique – e.g. low-fat cooking, live entertainment, long-time presence, low prices – and promote it relentlessly.  These will help you establish a well-defined niche.

Maximize your marketing opportunities. Think “new,” yet avoid being too trendy, since a solid restaurant concept is usually long-term. Grist for your publicity mill includes new menu items, fresh décor, innovative specials, a unique fundraiser, an extraordinary chef or server, and exciting entertainment – all valid reasons to celebrate, and to advertise and/or publicize.

Advertising vs. Public Relations. Your message can be disseminated via many channels: publicity, advertising, social media, special events, promotions, e-communications and direct mail.

In an ideal world, you’d have the budget to utilize all of the above. Yet, chances are financial constraints require strategic choices. If you can afford it, consider both advertising and publicity. They are complementary and more effective when executed in tandem.

Social media is cost-effective, and essential for both select and widespread distribution. However, a consistent social media program must be relentlessly creative and overseen, and the costs will be in the salary of at least one key overseer (either in-house or an outside vendor).

There are major contrasts between advertising and public relations, too.  A print ad is controllable and immediate. Placed in a magazine or newspaper, an ad will typically produce a more rapid and concrete response than a feature story in the same publication. Run an ad with a discount coupon and you may even see a spike in business the very next day. Coupons are not for every venue, so review your goals carefully.

Public relations – or publicity – usually requires many impressions or placements before you begin to see tangible results. Yet, publicity establishes credibility – people generally believe a news story or a feature in the food section of a magazine, newspaper or their favorite foodie blog.  And, nothing can quite equal the impact of a glowing review by a respected food critic.

Reaching Out: Develop a comprehensive customer mailing list and use it regularly. Depending on your customer base, this list should be for physical mailing addresses or email addresses – and in most cases, marketing both ways will be most effective. You can use a reprint of a feature or review, enclose a 2-for-1 coupon, a newsletter with a recipe OR an interview with the chef. Sent to your customers as positive reinforcement and/or as a motivation to return, these can be powerful marketing tools.

Although a highly visible public relations and advertising campaign is the ideal, consider reaching out locally, too, such as working with other businesses in your area to develop cross promotions and events.

Special Events: While a successful promotional campaign is an ongoing process, event-based marketing works well for the food service industry.

While, for instance, hosting a special event requires a considerable amount of time and planning, it provides an excellent means of generating news and community good will. Well-conceived and executed, it is well worth the effort and investment.

Develop an annual calendar of special events: charity fund raisers, new menu item debuts, seasonal promotions, entertainment, cooking classes, etc., and adhere to it closely. Publicize each occasion with an ad, media relations and social media – also known as paid, earned and owned media, respectively. Always maximize the publicity potential – consider photo(s) of, for instance, the event decor, the coordinator or chef-at-work preparing the cuisine.

To garner on-site media coverage, distribute a media advisory or calendar announcement – succinctly outlining the “Who,” What,” “When,” “Where” and “Why” – several days prior, and make follow-up calls to news or assignment editors on the day of the event.

And don’t forget post-publicity. Develop a “nose for news” and look for any interesting or amusing anecdotes for social media or to feed to newspaper columnists after your event.

The Bottom Line: In today’s saturated restaurant market, it is increasingly important to make the public aware of your establishment’s attributes and precisely what distinguishes it from the competition. So whatever the scope of your marketing efforts, you must develop a definitive personality and a certain charisma for your restaurant.

Above all, do not attempt to be all things to all people – know what you are, whom you are targeting, and convey clear and consistent messages.

You’ll know it’s working when your “regulars” keep returning and new customers show up – regularly.


Successful Restaurant Marketing Tips