IN EVERY BUSINESS, REPUTATION CAN MAKE OR BREAK YOU and in the food game, your reputation is everything. Public relations is an almost magical marketing tool through which the almighty power of unbiased opinion of tastemakers, aka the press, hold the singular power to sway humans into action.
In the world of marketing, the holy grail is “word of mouth.” This is when someone you already know and/or trust says: “I had the most incredible blueberry iced tea at Morimoto yesterday” and without much more description of the sugar-laced frosty glass in which it was served, your brain has instantly been imprinted with an image that records as: “if she liked it, I will” and so the probability that you will seek out that beverage at Morimoto next time, increases. If you compare this interaction to reading Bon Apétit magazine and seeing a review of that restaurant, the human proclivity to believe that reporter’s unbiased opinion is also high, but slightly less because the person saying it is not their pal. There is a very likely chance (if the review tantalizes your taste-buds) that you will believe it and therefore value that writer’s opinion and visit. However, If you see an ad in the same magazine for the restaurant, chances are that you won’t notice it. If you do, it may be because you had already “heard” about the wildly inventive chef’s take on iced tea; otherwise, it will likely have close to zero impact on your desire to go. Consumers can easily sense when an ad is biased, so it does not hold as much weight and they do not act
as quickly. If you have the budget, however, PR and advertising together is one heck of an impactful, one-two marketing punch.
When it comes to marketing, especially with a product that is sense-driven like the food business, you want to spend your money and time creating what I call the “oh yeah I’ve heard of that response.” In the retail world, this is the difference between a customer walking into a store already knowing they want Burt’s Bees because it’s natural and trustworthy and a no-reputation product on the shelf and risking the customer having to love your packaging enough to even pick it up to explore (never mind make the decision to purchase it). Imagine how your restaurant could flourish if everyone came in saying, “I heard you have the best burger in town.” There is nothing more frightening, and risky than relying solely on the fact that you exist and hoping customers will notice, yet many business owners do this.
BUILDING YOUR REPUTATION
Incentivizing existing guests to bring their friends is incredibly powerful. You might give them a coupon with a meaningful discount (discounts under 40% are not salacious) if they bring a new friend next time. You can do this through social media, an old fashion coupon, or through an email campaign. These “refer a friend” programs, though they seem overly simple, are very powerful because you are using your biggest fans as evangelists. You can
create this kind of program in an elegant way if you are an upscale concept or in a casual way for a QSR. Another thing you can do is invite food journalists to experience your culinary offering. These folks come in a variety of forms and it is extremely important to understand the rules of engagement.
1. A reporter (online, tv, magazine, newspaper or radio), is a free agent and the beauty (and the curse) of their coverage lies in freedom to give their own opinion. It must be unbiased to mean anything truly valuable. You must gift them a meal as most don’t have expense accounts — and make sure you wow them in all you do.
2. There is a very specific animal called a “restaurant critic.” In our world, you know
names like Brad Johnson, Gretchen Kurz, Jonathan Gold, and Irene Virbila. You can invite
them to your place — but you cannot gift or schedule them. You will likely never know when, or if, they visited unless you read their review. Going the reviewer route can be risky, but can produce some of the most valued opinions you could get.
3. Bloggers are mostly hybrids between advertising and PR, as they usually charge a small fee and require being gifted with a great meal. Debatably, a paid blogger review may be helpful for your reputation, but because it’s a biased opinion, the value does not compare to “earned editorial.”
The best way to create a reputation is to find a great PR firm to do the footwork. A junior publicist could cost about $3000 a month and a reputable firm should average a $5000-$8000 a month retainer. For your first 3 years in business, you should set aside $60,000-$100,000 a year for a PR-only marketing budget. As your business grows, you can increase advertising and other marketing. Reputation building is more important than adding something new to your menu. Just think of it this way: it doesn’t matter how insanely delicious your culinary creations are if you don’t have customers paying you for the honor. Being a great chef is only part of what is required for a business to thrive. Once you have nailed your offerings and environment, you will spend the rest your time and money building reputation to bring new customers. If you are lucky, time and a sterling reputation will eventually turn into a pull; but that tipping point takes a lot of energy to create.
ABOUT THE WRITER | Alyson Dutch
Alyson Dutch, the CEO of Malibu, California based Brown & Dutch Public Relations, is the
author of PR Handbook for Entrepreneurs and PR Handbook for Food Franchisees. Dutch’s
communication style is straightforward, genuine, and savvy. Her passion for her work
drives her to apply her knowledge in a creative, yet methodical manner. In addition,
she has a keen understanding of the cultural sensitivities that rule the business
marketplace and commands the media’s attention.