Elevate Your Digital Presence to Fill Your Restaurant & Bar Seats in 2023
A recap of our talk at Restaurants Canada 2023. Learn how to level up your brand, leverage the latest tech tools, and choose the right tactics to build and scale your digital equity and get people into your restaurant or bar.
State of the industry
The reality is that the alcohol industry is in the depths of a very interesting and challenging time. There is a big shift currently with regards to spending patterns, consumer behaviour, consumption and allegiances to brands.
Restaurant Canada’s Chief Economist communicated some bleak numbers at the Drinks Ontario AGM:
44% of full service restaurants indicated that 2022 was more challenging than 2021 (a year where the sector was only open for 6 months)
There is a real pressure on trying to maintain average check size
Alcohol sales are struggling (down 24% from 2019), consumption seems to be down, more people are ordering in and staying home.
95% of Canadians feel comfortable going to a restaurant, but only 47% feel comfortable going to a bar
If there was one big blanket goal, it would probably be to get people out of their homes and back in to restaurants & bars.
What to expect
Beverage alcohol will continue to be challenged in the year ahead. Consumers will be choosy with their dollars in the hospitality sector and will have high expectations, so the need to differentiate yourself is at an all-time high.
Businesses that can effectively communicate their story across various touch points and deeply integrate it into their brand will have the easiest time differentiating themselves and will rise above the rest; building audiences, customers and even fans that champion their brand on their behalf.
Elevating your brand
Why you need a strong brand
A strong purpose and identity is now a must for successful hospitality operations. There is an underlying want to be social – people want it – but the pandemic has made it more convenient and “normal” to stay home.
With the whole city’s restaurant roster being available on UberEats, the local spot that used to be the convenient dinner option is now competing with every restaurant and snack bar being delivered directly to your door.
When it comes to in-person experiences, restaurants and bars – especially the latter – are now a destination. With 47% of Canadians still uncomfortable going to bar, there is going to be some serious consideration to where they are going if they do end up somewhere.
It’s now the ideal time to leverage your digital brand to draw them in, and then give them an incredible and rewarding in-person experience to eventually bring them back. To some degree, it is different than it used to be; but it’s still about delivering on your brand promise. You just have to be a bit more creative now and speak to your guests from a few different angles.
Your brand is your customer’s entire experience and relationship with you, in real time. You have control over everything your brand does, but your brand is ultimately the perception created by your audience. It’s not limited to when they’re physically in your establishment, and that is rarely how it starts. Their first impression could be from anywhere; maybe a magazine featured you online, maybe they found a review, maybe they walked by, maybe they stumbled across an Instagram post, maybe their friend suggested you in conversation.
In a perfect world, you have full control every part of the customer’s experience, but there are infinite touch points; a lot of them created by people outside of your company. So the best way to ensure consistency is to have a solid brand as a foundation in place, and let everything build from there.
Building your brand around your story
Every great brand starts with a story, and every great story has a “why”.
When crafting your brand story, you’re ultimately looking for the thing that makes you unique and that people will resonate with. We find you’ll usually be able to find those nuggets when you think about:
Your mission and reason for creating the brand
Your founding story and journey to getting to where you are
Your values that come through in everything you do
When you write down your story, use it as the foundation of everything you do with your brand. Your story should come through in every digital channel and even within your physical space to create a cohesive and memorable experience, but that doesn’t necessarily mean you need to take your story word for word and put it on the walls (although you might). Your story should be communicated however literal or abstract as you feel is appropriate for you.
Humans are emotional beings, and your story is the strongest way to create an emotional connection with your customers (second to them crying over how good your food is). Once they have an emotional connection, they’ll feel more invested in the brand, and even more likely to share it with their friends. This differentiates you from every other restaurant or bar out there where the customer’s experience is limited to the tangible touch points.
Just as you choose the best way to tell your story, do the same with your values. If you’ve established a strong set of values, they should come through in everything you do, and don’t need to be written out for your customers to know what they are. Attracting customers with the same values is the best way to create brand loyalty.
It’s important while doing this exercise to remain authentic to yourself; don’t force anything that’s not there just because it’s something you think that people will resonate with. You’re not only risking your credibility, but customers can tell when your story or values are merely a mirage and don’t actually come through in their experience.
Our friends at Avling have a clear and strong brand mission, which they proudly state in the hero of their website.
Is your brand ready to scale?
When we talk about your brand being ready to scale, it really means you have a solid foundation in place that is well documented.
For restaurants & bars in particular, we know these brands are typically designed for the physical first; designing the venue, menus, cans, signs, etc. and then thought about how it translates to digital after. We don’t think there’s anything wrong with that, but it’s important to think about these things holistically, and not skip any details. Just like you want to create a cohesive experience in your physical space, you want to do the same online. It should also be cohesive across all digital channels to build digital equity.
How many restaurants have you been to where you can’t read the menu? Maybe the font is too small, the colours make it hard to read, or it’s a paper-thin white menu in a dark bar? Or maybe it’s not well organized, so it’s super difficult to navigate and understand? It’s likely not because someone said this is how this should be and why, but likely because no one said that.
Or have you ever looked for the washroom only to be led down a dark stairwell where there is no sign?
Your brand isn’t just the things that you do or document in a brand book, but also the things that you don’t do or don’t document. Remember, your brand is the perception your customer has of you, and they don’t know what you have documented; they just know what their experience is.
Your brand is the foundation for everything. It will directly or indirectly make or break your customer’s experience; whether that be when they’re in your physical space or still making the decision to go when they’re on your website, socials, etc. Pay attention to the details and your customers will notice, especially when the brand details go hand in hand with your brand story or purpose.
To create a top-notch brand and to ensure everything you build on top of it is cohesive, document as much as you can.
Define your brand story and values
Establish brand voice and tone to reflect your personality and values to resonate with your customers
Refine your visual identity; document how your logo should be used, how your colour palette works, what your photo style is, all of your typography rules, etc.
Communicate with your team and vendors; make sure they are all familiar with every aspect of the brand and reflect it in everything they do or make
Whatever you do, do it with conviction and don’t be scared. It might be wrong and you might change it, but just own it until you need to change or abandon it.
When you have a solid brand in place, everybody wins. In the early days of MOD, we offered a variety creative services but have since narrowed it down to building brands and digital experiences. We did this because we had often found ourselves working with companies that didn’t have a great brand foundation so the projects weren’t setting themselves up for success. Defining and documenting your brand will pay dividends for the years ahead.
Tailoring your website
Why you need a website
We never know what your audience’s first touch point is with you, but we can assume if they want to quickly find you online, they’re likely Googling you. This very well might be the first touch point they have with you that you are in control of, so it’s your chance to make a good impression and convey your brand to the best of your ability.
Your website is obviously a great place to house everything your customer will need to know about you – your menu, your hours, your location, your phone number, etc. Making it super easy for your customers to do what they’re trying to do is expected, but failing to do so can easily frustrate them, especially with today’s short attention span.
These are all pretty basic reasons to have a site, but our favourite reason is because the autonomy it brings. It’s one of the few digital properties you truly have full control over. While we all know the powers of social media, your website isn’t on hosted on what could be the next MySpace (okay, we’re hyperbolizing, but but you get it). If social media is rented space, your website is investing in purchased property.
On that same note, your website can be the primary driver to build more tools you have complete control over:
An email marketing list (which we’ll dive more into in the “Tactics” section)
In-depth analytics (thoroughly understand your audience and behaviours)
Customer retargeting (retarget your audience on various social media platforms once they’ve visited your site)
SEO optimization (get in front of people searching for relevant things on the web)
What makes a good website
A great website does two things:
fully reflects your brand
helps your customers achieve their goals.
Understanding why your customers are coming to your site is the first step to determining what content goes on your site and how it’s laid out.
Taking this a step further, think about the device that they’re on and how their goals change. Everybody knows that your website should work and look perfectly on every device size from your iPhone to your iPad to your Macbook; that’s expected. But for restaurants and bars in particular, the experience your customer is looking for can be different depending on their device.
You can make some assumptions (i.e. make it super easy to call you on the mobile site, prioritize reservations on the desktop site, etc.), but it’s important to keep tabs on your analytics to see how your customers actually interact with your site.
Your website should be a direct extension of your brand, from the visuals to the photography down to the writing. Content wise, your site should have what’s needed; nothing more, nothing less. But you get to decide what’s needed, and you can use your brand to help you decide this as well.
For example, OddSeoul, a late night Korean snack bar in Toronto, doesn’t have a sign on their door. They don’t take reservations. They don’t have a phone. They don’t… have a website. This is intentional. This is their brand. These decisions wouldn’t work for 99% of other restaurants and bars, but it does for them. While some people may be frustrated by the lack of these things and get turned off, it ultimately is helping them keep their audience to those that are aligned with their brand.
Now if you do decide that a website is a good idea (it probably is), one key thing is to make sure it stays up to date; don’t lie to your customers. If you have hours, make sure they’re up to date. If you have a menu, make sure it’s accurate. And if you have a blog or events section, keep it updated or kill it – if I go to your events section and see the last one was 5 months ago, I might assume you closed down for good.
If you’ve branded yourself well, I should be able to identify who you are even if I covered up the logo on your site.
The first step is to take an audit of your site and make sure it best reflects your brand and everything you’ve now documented and everything is working towards your goal.
If you don’t have one, or thinking about building a new one, you can build a website yourself without coding or having any experience building websites. There are a few tools you can use but we recommend Squarespace; they have great templates, it’s easy to use, and we rarely see broken Squarespace websites out in the wild. We used Squarespace to help Avling build their website.
There are other no-code tools you can leverage (that do require some website experience) to create incredible experiences to draw in customers; we’ve been using Framer to create sites like the one we made for Simpl Things, a cocktail & snack bar in Parkdale.
If you hire a studio, agency or freelancer, hopefully this post as a whole will help you decide if they’re the right partner to take on the job. But it is 2023 and we’re deep in a new world of no-code tools and AI, so ask about their processes. If the tools they use and how fast they build and iterate hasn’t changed in the past 2-3 years, that’d be a red flag to look out for where there are likely partners that are more efficient and can offer you more. You can check out some of the tools we've been using lately here.
Choosing the right tactics
Social media is a great avenue to build relationships with customers and potential customers, but it’s an ever changing landscape.
To do organic social properly and see its full potential, it’s a big process and undertaking – there’s planning, calendar creation, shooting, writing, designing, managing & moderating, analytics, reporting, etc.
However, restaurants & bars have a bit of a unique situation where they have an internal team that could be leveraged to create low-effort social content; taking photos of food & bev, announcing specials, etc. We suggest you stick with things that will help you market in the most cost effective way as possible.
Paid social for brand awareness is always a valid tactic, but going heavy into organic social is only for those with the luxury of time, resources or money.
If we ran a restaurant & bar and were to think about investing in an external partner to take on organic social, I’d likely invest into making each moment super shareable. Someone posting a photo and tag on Instagram or Twitter is often worth exponentially more than any organic content you could come up with.
From how your food looks and how you plate it to the physical decor and vibe you set up – you want to inspire your customers to want to naturally capture and share their experience. Just don't try to hard and force it.
Whatever you do, do it with intention and take on what you can manage. It’s important to understand the commitment; the effort you put in, specifically for organic social, may not give you the ROI you’re looking for.
Generally speaking, email marketing is severely underrated. It’s an incredible 1-on-1 communication tool, especially considering you’re sending emails to a qualified database that opted in to receive emails from you. And just like your website, you have complete autonomy over your email list.
For every $1 you spend on email marketing, you can expect an average return of $40 (Omnisend, 2022). That’s pretty crazy.
There are countless ways to use email marketing, but it all boils down to your brand and its offering, what your audience is interested in and what they’d be open to receiving.
Some email ideas for restaurants & bars include:
Newsletters – behind the scenes, stories, chef interviews, recipe tips, or industry news.
Personalized promotions and discounts – based on preferences, dining history, birthdays, frequency, etc.
Surprise & delight – give unsolicited promos, giveaways, incentives, etc.
Announcements – upcoming events, new menus, closings, etc.
Loyalty programs – reward customers for their loyalty and frequency
Reservation reminders and follow-ups – reviews, incentives to share, etc.
Re-engagement campaigns – bring in customers who haven’t visited in a while
There are dozens of email marketing tools to use, most start with Free tiers and are so easy to use you don’t need any experience. MailChimp is probably the most popular go-to, but we actually use Klaviyo, which we’ve found super easy to make opt-ins, flows and email sequences.
Experience and education
Every touchpoint is an opportunity to make an impression, so focus on and prioritize your guest’s experience with your business from the root to the fruit; from first interaction (whether that be your website, social, etc.) all the way through the journey to paying their bill.
You can educate servers to upsell your guests by guiding them to the higher margin areas which are often the items that are most memorable to your customers; whether it be your cocktail list, feature wine, craft beer, etc. If you want to feature unique items with higher price points, make sure you and your staff are informed and knowledgable on the products and educate your guests.
Let’s say you introduce a new cocktail to the menu that is 20% more expensive. Your team should be able to succinctly communicate what is unique and special about it as well as why it’s worth trying. The message should be cohesive with the teaser you may have posted on social media, to the email sent to your customers announcing it, to the way the server presents it. This now becomes a simple differentiator with increased margin and a reason to return.
Speaking from a craft beer perspective, your beer reps will often be open to doing a staff training on all your beers. This will allow your servers to guide and educate your guests on the beers you are featuring helping to drive knowledge and margin.
Collaborative promotions & activations
The idea of a collaboration is to provide your guests with additional value and reasons to visit your establishment, as well as to drive new customers to your business.
Restaurant owners can create “experiences” at their establishment to encourage parties and event nights. A pretty common way to do this is trivia nights.
These will also help populate and support your outbound communication strategy; website, social media, email, etc.
Some collaborations and activation ideas:
Local business: Partner with a local record shop to play and sell vinyl during an afternoon with food/drink specials. Good opportunity for a supplier to sample products as well.
Local business: Local bike shop to provide simple tune-up while you enjoy a bite/pint.
Suppliers: Beer tasting with food pairings hosted by a key supplier.
Suppliers: New product launch with food specials. Your suppliers would likely be keen for you to promote a new product launch.
Suppliers: Trivia nights are booming and there are a few companies doing a great job executing them. Partner with a supplier for prizing and to help off-set costs.
Conversation starters: Give guests an option to pull cards from a box with conversation starters on them. Could be branded and funded by a supplier (i.e. favourite concert you’ve attended, dream vacation if money was no object, come up with 10 varietals of wine; then educate on the 15 varietals of wines you sell)
In-house: “Trying 4 new menu items this week, each paired with wine or beer. Reserve now.”
The reality is that the restaurant & bar industry is in the depths of a very challenging time, but we’re optimistic if you:
Focus on building a strong brand from the bottom up, based around your unique story
Document as much of your brand as possible to be cohesive, to build brand equity, and to be able to scale seamlessly
Take an audit of your website and make sure your brand is best reflected, and everything is supporting the goals you have for your site
Leverage tools to optimize your site yourself or hire a studio to collaborate with
Choose the right tactics for your brand; whether that be social media, building an email marketing list, focusing on experience and education, or collaborating with other brands on promos & activations
You can see a list of our favourite tools that are helping us crush 2023.
If you have any questions or are interested in working with us, feel free to contact us.