Marketing Chiefs Shaping the Food Industry Today

By Amelia Levin, Foodable Contributor

Digital, social, mobile, video, blogs. The list of marketing opportunities goes on. And that’s precisely the challenge marketing executives in all industries face today as methods increasingly become more tech-oriented. 

Restaurant marketers –- embedded in an industry with an extremely competitive landscape and super tight profit margins –- face an even greater challenge to integrate digital expertise and various marketing strategies with the variety of mediums out there. With such complexity and no one, clear, overarching approach, few marketing masters are pulling all the strings to lead their brands and concepts to a new level of success. But some are doing just that. 

Integrating Mediums

Successful restaurant marketing means determining objectives and leveraging specific platforms to achieve those goals. 

For many restaurant brands, traditional advertising –- in the form of television, radio, print and billboard (outdoor) ads –- still takes a large part of the marketing budget. And then there is digital advertising in the form of paid and non-paid social media activity, online ads, video, and even digital radio through mediums like Pandora and Spotify. 

“We use them all,” says Clay Dover, CMO of Asian-inspired fast-casual chain Pei Wei.  

The challenge for Dover and many other marketing chiefs is how to integrate all these mediums. 

“If you want to make a splash and get your brand out there and raise awareness rapidly around a new logo, look, menu or campaign, then television and radio historically are the most effective mediums,” Dover says. “If you want to literally drive customers to your location, then outdoor advertising is a great opportunity.” 

But most restaurant brands these days live in the grey, meaning they don’t always know how to maximize the social media/online/mobile game.

“One of the challenges that face CMOs –- today especially in the restaurant industry --  is that there are no longer just three levers to pull and then you hit the jackpot, so to speak,” Dover says. “I can remember when Seinfeld came on TV and more than 50 percent of the country were watching and you could spend the money on ad placement during that or another popular show and call it a day. The same dynamics don’t apply today. There are more opportunities outside of prohibitively expensive advertising with digital marketing, but that’s a good thing and a challenge.” 

The advantage of online marketing is it can be very targeted. “If I wanted to target people who love Asian food and live in Phoenix and like to take pictures of their food, then I would focus on digital advertising using Facebook and Twitter and Instagram to target that group,” says Dover. 

The idea with online marketing is to grow a brand organically. Digital users –- Millennials, in particular -– can see right through the BS these days. “One way to do that is go after influencers, such as those active on social media who are talking, or bloggers,” says Dover. “You have to sit down and outline what your objective is. Do you want your customers to come in on a certain day? Are you trying to ramp up dinner business? Are you trying to target a particular customer type? You can raise general awareness or drill down as much as you want using certain mediums.” 

According to Foodable Labs, of the 130 Million restaurant consumers tracked in the Restaurant Social Media Index, more consumer activity is now being driven from digital mediums. The data shows that consumer activity driven from digital media campaigns outweighs that of traditional platforms (email, print, radio, TV), by 2.9 to 1 social mentions.

Credit: Twitter/@PeiWeiCMO

Credit: Twitter/@PeiWeiCMO

From Social to Personal

Building on “organic” marketing means making personal connections with customers. 

“Our stated goal for Pei Wei is to develop a relationship with our customers through social media rather than just offer coupons or run ads,” says Dover. 

Rather than send out tweets or Instagram photos from a general corporate entity, Dover has retained his identity as Pei Wei’s marketing chief and posts content himself on social media. He even prints his @PeiWeiCMO handle on his business cards. 

“We went to L.A. to try out new Asian concepts for research and it was fun to post about where we went to eat,” says Dover. “We have a test kitchen at the Pei Wei offices and like to post behind-the-scene shots, and a day in the life of a restaurant exec type post.” The posts are passionate, not forced, and it seems to have struck a chord with the primarily Millennial customer followers. 

He also credits his Millennial-age marketing team for help in what’s trending (Instagram) and what’s not (Facebook for companies). 

“That’s one of the biggest challenges CMOs face in the restaurant industry these days. I’m a Gen Xer and we’re not the social media group that’s necessarily downloading every app and living and breathing online,” says Dover. 

Still, social media even impacts the way menu decisions can be made. “We know the second most photographed thing online is food,” says Dover. “So when we test out new dishes we always wonder, ‘Is this photo worthy?’ We know people love to interact with our brand online so we have to ask, ‘Are they going to take out their cell phone and take a picture?’”  

Video Variety

Video continues to challenge some marketers, with the abyss that is YouTube and the uncertainty about how customers use video when it comes to interacting with restaurant brands. 

Pei Wei recently switched its focus to Vimeo for videos, uploading content that’s no more than 30 seconds and avoiding distracting ads. “We know video is engaging and more intriguing but we need to insert our content where guests are going to see it,” says Dover. “We try to take things we’re doing and turn it into a story, but always stay relevant and have a plan about where to post the content.” 

Typically, that means posting videos through other social media platforms to integrate the various mediums as well as on the company homepage. 



CMP: The New Blog?

Rather than simply develop a blog for videos and other content, Firehouse Subs has taken social a step further, as it has in the past, by building a separate website,, (.co is not a typo) to serve as a standalone Content Management Platform to tell the story of its firefighter supporters and activists in the community.

“Blogs can be very limited,” says Doug Reifschnieder, vice president of marketing for Firehouse Subs. “We learned that when it comes to digital, there needs to be a dialogue and a connection to the brand. As marketers, we have to act more like publishers and less like advertisers.” 

Firehouse Subs determined most customers were visiting the main Firehouse Subs website for the menu and locations, but not for much else. The CMP idea came about out of a goal to build a more interactive experience with customers all in one place. 

The Firehouse Subs brand continues to remain active on Facebook as one of the early adopters in 2008 with 1.2 million followers. Firehouse also maintains its Twitter account, with 40.7K followers. But it makes sure to integrate the feeds from those accounts into

To stay ahead of the pack, Reifschnieder and his team have also closely monitored the way mobile has moved to more wearable mediums, from the Apple Watch and Fitbits to other activity and nutrition tracking devices, to even t-shirts with built-in trackers. 

Even smartphones have begun to be used for different activities, such as scanning barcodes on food packages to determine nutritional information and calories and other tracking needs. In response, Firehouse Subs has made all of its nutritional information available online and through other mediums, but Reifschnieder knows there will be more to do in this arena.

Analyzing Results

Other than figuring out how to integrate different mediums, a main challenge for restaurant marketers is measuring their results. 

“We like to use the KPIs, but at the end of the day we have to look at our restaurant sales,” says Reifschnieder. “We could have three times the industry average when it comes to social media followers but at the end of the day if our sales didn’t go up, does it really matter?”

Paul Barron, editor-in-chief at Foodable Network, notes the importance of closing the gap in understanding these "social to in-store" conversion rates.

“It’s really only a matter of time before we get full end-to-end marketing solutions that will connect the dots and close the loop on marketing messages to location-based actions (LBAs). Resources like Foodable Labs that provide location-based-action reporting based on media campaigns as well as competitive analysis, is the future of how restaurant marketers will become more and more advanced.”

Reifschnieder’s team has been studying location-based actions, meaning tracking customers who have posted about visiting a Firehouse Subs restaurant and trying to examine the multiple conversations around that ping. “I can determine how many people actually visited one of our restaurants using certain keywords,” he says. 

Dover has used a similar method –- text-scraping –- to comb for data beyond simple Google Analytics, which monitors traffic and can perform basic segmentation studies. 

Text-scraping works with cloud-based analytics to collect comments about a brand from a variety of online and social media sites, even including Craigslist and, of course, Yelp, where everyone can choose to be a critic these days.

“If I find Pei Wei and cold food are commonly mentioned, I know I might have an issue and that’s great insight,” says Dover. “But if it’s just one comment, I don’t pull the fire alarm necessarily.” 

When it comes to studying comments on Yelp, “I find the instant feedback is helpful, but I don’t overact,” he says. “I do not make all of my decisions based on Yelp reviews, but we read all the comments that come through.”

And that’s important to note. According to Foodable Labs data, while many brands might believe social sites like Yelp have become a venue for complaints, 78.4 percent of digital engagements consist of neutral or positive posts rather than complaints or negative posts. And digital consumers are 4.3 times more likely to recommend a good restaurant experience. 

“There is no magic formula today when it comes to marketing and engagement,” says Reifschnieder. “We try to stay active in all mediums, and try to predict what’s coming next.”