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10 Smart Promotional Strategies

By Jay Siff

If you're a small, independent restaurant, you're probably convinced you can't possibly compete in the marketing arena against those big chains with their huge ad budgets and big-time ad agencies.

Actually, nothing could be further from the truth. Local restaurants can not only survive, but thrive, in an industry increasingly filled with deep-pocketed national competitors. In fact, independent eateries have unique advantages that can put larger businesses on the defensive. All it takes is an understanding of those advantages—and the willingness to leverage them.

Armed with the right attitude, independents can take advantage of a number of tools to help them succeed amidst a crowded local restaurant scene. And while there is no shortage of good ideas out there, those ideas can all be organized around a few key marketing principles every restaurant owner or manager should know. Master them, and you can compete against anyone, big or small.

Using the disciplines outlined here, your establishment can attract new customers, regain lost ones, generate referrals, increase per-table sales, stimulate repeat visits, build customer loyalty and much more. Call them The 10 Commandments of Promotional Marketing:

1. Take your customer's point of view. This commandment makes it to the top of the list because it's one of the most fundamental, yet most often violated, principles of all. How many times have you seen restaurants touting "New Dècor" or "New Menu" on window signs or in newspaper ads? (Every time I see "Under New Management" I'm baffled as to who is supposed to be impressed. The customer? All it does is make me think about how bad the place was under the old regime.)

When you promote your business, whether in brochures, on table tents or in a direct mailing, lead with what's in it for your customer—not for you. Don't say, "Buy one, get one free"; instead say, "Get one free with every purchase." People look out for their own self-interests. Make sure your offers reflect that fact.

2. Market to your current customers. Every day scores of people enter your establishment who have already made the decision to buy from you. These are presold, active customers. Allowing them to exit without asking for personal information— especially a street or e-mail address—is a big mistake.

Gathering such info is easier than you think. All you need is an incentive. It might be a "free lunch" drawing for those who drop their business card in a fishbowl. Or the offer we use in our company's packaged Loyal Rewards program—free gift certificates e-mailed to patrons who provide their online address.

Once you've built up your mailing list you can issue any number of powerful promotions to encourage repeat visits or higher check totals. Your goal is to make these past customers think of you first when planning their next night out. Give them a good reason, and they'll come back again and again.

3. Be the hometown favorite. The essence of local store marketing is connecting yourself to the pulse of your community. As a locally owned small business, you have opportunities national chains simply can't duplicate.

It's a fact that people have a soft spot for neighborhood merchants who support local causes. Sponsor a community event. Donate food for a good cause. Tell your local little league that any winning team showing up at your door in its entirety for ice cream will receive extra scoops for free. Your support and good will, expressed in ways that are important to your community, will make your restaurant the go-to place in town.

4. Give away your product. Have you ever considered that giving a 100% discount one time may be more valuable in the long run than a 10% discount offered on 10 occasions?

A highly effective effective promotional program for restaurants is built around giveaways for people who have just moved into town. These are folks who are trying to feel connected to their new community. What better way to discover a great restaurant than to receive a coupon in the mail for a free dinner with no strings attached?

You can also use a freebie to bring back past customers—or to reward continuing patronage. Say you've noticed a customer who comes in five or six times a month for lunch. After a couple months of this, what if you approached the person's table and said, "You're such a good customer, today it's on the house." You don't think that person will tell 10 of his or her best friends about your amazing service?

5. Practice "four walls" marketing. Every area of your restaurant should be well-thought-out as to how it will promote your product. This gets people to spend more at each visit.

Do you promote menu items on your walls? In the bar? Are special events or holiday offers listed in the restrooms? Four walls marketing extends to the limits of your parking lot or property line as well. Is your street signage readable and well-lit?

Servers should also be part of your sales strategy. Train your servers to suggestive-sell side dishes or specials. You can offer incentives to your wait staff, such as a $20 bonus to the person selling the most soup in an evening. (Just don't allow customers to be badgered as a result.)

6. Be outrageous. Wow your customers. Give them a customer experience so unique, so compelling, that they can't resist coming back.

T. Scott Gross, author of OUTRAGEOUS: Unforgettable Service, Guilt-free Selling, says that such experiences are created using four simple tactics: Have Fun; Create Traffic; Involve The Product; and Do Something Good For Others. And lest you think otherwise, providing these experiences can be inexpensive, or even free, for your business.

Cold Stone Creamery has built a reputation on, among other things, singing servers. Ford places white gloves in the trunks of its Explorer SUVs next to the spare tire, so owners don't have to dirty their hands when changing a flat. Zappos, the online shoe purveyor, has a 365-day return policy for unworn shoes— no questions asked.

7. Create a swipe file. The old saying, "If you can't think of a good idea, steal one" isn't unprincipled when it comes to marketing. In the marketplace of ideas, strategies from other industries or professions can be of great use if you reshape them to fit your particular needs.

Hang onto ads or direct mail pieces that catch your eye. Take notes on effective promotions from businesses in other fields. Collect new service ideas. Put these items in a folder so you have a ready resource when brainstorming ways to stimulate your sales.

8. Track every campaign you run. Unlike big companies with multimillion-dollar ad budgets, you don't have the luxury of throwing money at " image" advertising. Your marketing dollars must provide a direct return on investment. And you can't manage what you can't measure!

Ask your new customers how they heard about you, to find out if your ads are working. Whenever you run a promotion, collect the coupons or certificates along with daypart and party size data. Keep a pad or clipboard by the phone to record information. It's the only way to know which efforts are making you money—and which aren't.

Lastly, if a promotion is working, keep doing it. Too many restaurants make changes too quickly. It's ok to add to an effective campaign, but don't stop a profitable effort until it's no longer generating results.

9. Don't be the coupon king. While we're on the subject of coupons, a word to the wise: while sampling, discounting and gifting all work well to promote product trial, you must be careful not to overdo it and create a "discounter" image. If you do, your customers will simply become hooked on coupons and wait for the next one to come along. In the meantime your sales and profit opportunities suffer.

As for delivery media, coupon packs like Valpak and Money Mailer lump you in with scores of other coupons. That only dilutes your offer's uniqueness. Better to come up with a fresh, original idea, then deliver it to your best current and potential customers in a such way that you become top-of-mind versus your competition.

10. If you hire professionals, hire proven winners. If you're convinced you need advertising or PR agency help, that's fine. But don't be fooled by slick presentations. Check references to ensure that the agency or consultant has a track record of success in the restaurant field. Otherwise you'll likely be throwing your money away.

Also, guard against attractive promotional pieces that don't sell. Good design alone is never a reason to approve a piece of creative. Remember that a quick, handwritten note can easily outperform a slickly produced mailer. As a small independent, you have to base your decisions on what will generate a solid return. Demand results from every marketing effort you undertake, and you'll find your money well spent.

Jay Siff is a principal of Moving Targets (, a Perkasie, PA-based provider of new resident direct marketing programs for small business. Jay can be reached at 800-926-2451 or [email protected].

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