The 10 Commandments of Restaurant Branding

By Donald Burns, Foodable Industry Expert

There are a lot of moving parts that comprise a great restaurant. Outstanding service and food are a part of that equation. One element that many owners overlook — or even worse, ignore — is branding. It’s a critical success flaw that keeps restaurant consultants around the world steady with clients.

Let’s look at your restaurant components like the human body. As the owner, you are the brain. You send signals to the rest of the body to keep it going. Your team is the heart of your restaurant. Your heart might not be 100% and you can still survive (for a while). Profitability is the blood, your restaurant needs it to flow to keep alive. You brand is like air. You cannot live very long without air.

Think of the following 10 Commandments of Restaurant Branding as if Moses himself brought these down from the mountain carved in stone tablets. If you violate these sacred things then you risk the wrath of the restaurant gods and your customers!

1. Always protect the brand… always. 

This lesson I learned working for Wolfgang Puck. You always protect the brand. Every business decision you make about your restaurant needs to always ask this question, “Does this enhance or detract from my brand?”

Adding a new menu item? Does it fit with your brand? Hiring a new employee? Do they fit with your brand culture? 

If you want better results, you need to ask better quality questions.

2. Make guests your priority.

Your brand needs to be “others focused.” Too many restaurants operate on what is easiest for the owners and employees, and not on what is best for the guests. You might have the best food in the world and you might get business because of it, too. Your restaurant will not be in the hearts of your guests until you make them your focus.

3. Never devalue your brand. 

Remember the words of The Joker in The Dark Knight, "If you're good at something, never do it for free!"

When you get on the “discount train,” you are setting your restaurant up for failure. Discounts attract those customers who are shopping for the bargain. That is what they are loyal to. When the restaurant down the street has a better discount than you, that is where you’ll find them.

Discounting also conditions your customers to think that you are willing to devalue your products. Why would guests want to pay $9.00 for calamari when they can get the exact same dish at $4.00 for happy hour? If you really want to drive traffic at different meal periods, design menu items that are a lower price point and are signatures for that time. 

Half-price on all appetizers during happy hour devalues your regular menu. A specially designed small plate menu during happy hour with creative items not normally found on your menu will drive business to your door.

4. Tell a story… a really good story.

People love a good brand story. Great brands embrace and tell their story to everyone! Who doesn’t know that Apple started in Steve Jobs’ garage? Is your meatloaf recipe handed down from your great great grandmother? Do you only use Spanish olive oil to finish you pasta with because of a trip you remember to Europe? Stories provide the human element of a brand.

5. Don’t expect to be an overnight success.

It takes a while to build a brand, and this is where many owners fail. They expect everyone to fall in love with their brand as fast as they did. Truth is, very few brands are overnight successes. 

You need to have faith and confidence in your brand even when times get tough. Now trust me on this, you will question your brand. Not every day is going to be sunshine and rainbows. Now here is where many restaurant owners go astray. When the going gets tough, they wander away from the brand they created. They start to take advice from others (many have no restaurant experience) and the brand becomes “diluted.” 

Here is the one question you need to remember: If you don’t know what your brand is, how do you expect your customers to know?

In the movie “Top Gun,” Tom Cruise’s character loses faith in who he is is. He is overconfident and, when thrown in with pilots who are world-class, he starts to doubt himself. He soon learns there are rules he needs to live by to embrace the culture of excellence, that combat pilots need to be the best of the best. He develops a saying that he repeats over and over to himself, “I am not leaving my wingman!” You need to develop a similar mantra, “I am not leaving my brand!”

6. Stand for something.

Brands that have a cause find a niche that connects customers quickly. Basic human psychology tells us that people like people who are like themselves. Consider the restaurant that has an outdoor patio and allows dogs. They provide water bowls and housemade “dog biscuits” for patrons. They connect with a group that has shown if you love my dog, I’ll love your brand.

7. Be consistent.

Inconsistency is the slow death of any business. So where does consistency start? It starts with your culture. If you allow an attitude of indifference to grow in your service team, don't be shocked when they treat your customers with the same nonchalant behavior. If you allow your cooks to take shortcuts and compromise the standards, then do not be surprised when your customers go online to write reviews on the inconsistent food.

8. Connect to the emotional side of people.

Behavioral scientist will tell you that it's in our genetic makeup to be social creatures. We can't help it. Great brands understand that and take advantage of what was mentioned earlier as “the human element.” Take a look at commercials for cologne or perfume. There's no way by watching a TV commercial that you know what that product is going to smell like. They flash images of beautiful people, doing beautiful things, in beautiful locations. Those images stir up emotions and marketers around the world will all agree that people buy for emotional reasons.

Restaurant brands can play into a wide range of human emotions like romance. A small intimate restaurant could say something like this on social media, “Our restaurant was voted number one most romantic views of the city. Rekindle that spark with dinner reservations tonight at Chez Paris.” 

Humor is another great emotion that restaurants can tap into. How about a pizza restaurant that puts a social media post up saying, “You had me at mozzarella” or at staff wearing t-shirts that say, “Legalize Marinara.” People connect with brands that don't take themselves too seriously. To paraphrase a famous Marilyn Monroe quote, “If you can make someone laugh, you can make them do anything.”

9. Explain your "why."

Simon Sinek has an amazing book entitled, “Start With Why.” He discusses the concept that most brands focus on telling you what they do and how they do it. Sinek goes on to explain that great brands explain why they do it. Marketers love to throw out the words brand differential or unique selling proposition. Most restaurants can adequately describe what and how they do to stand out from the market. Great restaurant brands connect at the emotional level of why.

Let's take the example of your typical Mexican restaurant. Their brand statement might read like, “We make tacos and burritos following traditional family recipes. We use great ingredients, made fresh daily.” Not bad, right?

Here's how Chipotle does it. “We believe that food should not only be fresh, it should not contain hormones, antibiotics or GMO’s. We believe your food should be prepared in front of you so you can see our commitment to using fresh, local and sustainable products. We also make a damn great burrito.” When you explain the why behind what drives your restaurant, you'll stand out so far in the market that others will be playing catchup.

10. Stand out from the crowd.

If you have followed closely to the previous nine commandments, then this one is just icing on the cake. Have a great story that explains your why. Connect with the emotional side of people and deliver value. In your brand promise, be consistent and customer focused. When times get tough you need to believe in your brand. If you follow these Branding Commandments, you'll find that your restaurant definitely stands out from the crowd.