Is Your Brand Sending Mixed Messages?

In the sea of restaurant options out there, does your brand stand out? So many fail to capture the attention of their guests and just blend in with the rest. The main reason is that they send mixed messages about who they are. Listen, when you are confused about who you are and what you stand for, how do you think your market will react to you? Lukewarm at best. Sure, new guests might stop in out of curiosity, but if you don't deliver a solid message, they won't be back.

Let's explore some common mixed-message mistakes and a three-step plan to correct course.

Menu Confusion

Your sign out front, your website, and Yelp all say you're an Italian restaurant. Yet, when guests come in and see your menu, you can tell by the look on their face that they are confused. Asian chicken wings? Baja fish tacos? Bacon-wrapped filet with French demi-glacé? Oh, and in the corner, four pasta dishes. Hmmm. What is going on here? You say Italian in all your marketing, but when guests get there, you very little Italian options on the menu. Mixed message.

Staff Uniforms

You say you are an upscale restaurant, and judging by the menu prices online and the number of dollar signs next to your restaurant name on review sites, we get the message that you are a nice upscale place. The guest gets there and is greeted by a host wearing a sports jersey, jeans, flip flops and a nose ring. Your guest and their date are dressed for what they thought would be the atmosphere, given the high prices.

Okay, they say. They’ll let this slide, even though now they’re thinking that they may have overdressed. They are seated and try to settle in for the meal. Then, they see someone walking through the dining room wearing cut off jean shorts and a tank top, only to see that person walk behind the bar. That’s the bartender making their drinks! Mixed message.

Brand Image

So, dinner went well and one of your managers stops by to give a guest their card. Your manager offers it as a gesture for future business and as a contact point. Nice job. Well played. Then about 10 minutes later, another manager stops by the table and hands your guest their business card, only this time, the card looks totally different. Same name of the restaurant, however, different colors, different fonts, different brand tagline. Confusing? Yes, and another mixed message.

We use the word autonomy often today in culture. The problem with autonomy is when it is mixed with your brand image, your audience experiences mixed brand messages. Autonomy can be both good and bad. When you allow your workers to take personal accountability and hold themselves accountable to your brand without having to micromanage them: good. When you allow them to add throw new item onto the menu just because they want to build their reputation, allow the service team to dress however they like (even if it clashes with your brand), or allow managers to design their own “unique” business card because they want to feel special: bad.

Too many restaurants allow the staff to dictate the brand. We might live in a democracy, however, when it comes to your brand, your money, your integrity…there can be only one voice. That's yours.

How to Get Control of Your Brand: The Three-Step Solution

We know what got most restaurants into this funk of brand dilution, and that is too much outside input and not enough inside input. When you set out on your path to create your brand, you had a vision, a fire. It drove you and kept you awake at night. Maybe you don't feel that internal flame as bright as it once was. So, what is an owner or operator to do?

Be Crystal Clear

What is your brand identity? Who are you? What is your mission? Who do you want as guests? Who do you want as staff? Why do you do this day after day? Oh, and the answer for that last question has to be more than just money, or your brand will have a short shelf life. Please don’t think that making a profit is bad. It just cannot be the all-consuming driving force to why you do this if you are an operator.

These are questions that need to be answered and you must write them down. You know the old saying that a verbal contract is not worth the paper it is written on? Well, that goes for your vision and core values for your restaurant! You must commit to writing down those things in your head. Get them out for the guest and your team to see.

Contrary to the popular belief that people can read minds — They can't. You must be the megaphone for who you are, what you do, and why you do it! As the leader of a restaurant, your duty is to become a culture advocate. Culture is created by design or by default. If you do not take part of creating and sculpting the culture of your brand, you can have faith that one will creep out of the primordial ooze and start to grow in your restaurant. Imagine the cult horror movie “The Blob” as an image of culture gone bad.

When you become clear on your brand message, you want to carve it into stone and bring it down from the mountains and present to your guests and team like it was a tablet carried down by Moses himself. Yeah, your brand message is non-negotiable!

Be Obsessed with Consistency

Consistency makes or breaks restaurant brands. Probably the No. 1 comment made by people who stop visiting a restaurant is this: “Things just changed. They weren't the same.” Just like any relationship, when people (or brands) change, we lose trust and faith. Brand trust, also known as brand promise, is a sacred bond between the guest and the brand. Break it and it will be a long road to recovery. (Ask Chipotle.)

Standardization is the key. Consistency is a promise that you want to honor with every ounce of breath within your brand. Your internet presence, social media, how you answer the phone, how you greet guests, how drinks are made, how food is prepared, how you saw goodbye — everything. If you are not clear on this, then get pen and paper and write it down. You must communicate your brand standards to the team.

Now, if you have allowed the team to become a democracy and the brand standards have slipped…time to get them back where they belong. Draw the line on the sand and remind the team that these are the standards. There is no debate, there is no substitution, there is no compromise if you want to remain a member of the team!

When you find team members who do not want to be consistent with the standards you set, it is your obligation to protect the brand and send them down the road to look for employment with another restaurant who might thrive on mediocrity. Oh, and before you reach for the excuse that it will make you run short-staffed, what is worse? Running short-staffed (which you can control, by the way) or run with a full team that is sabotaging your brand from the inside? Better to see the external wound and deal with it head on. It’s internal bleeding that slowly kills restaurants. Remember that it’s not the person you fail to hire that kills your brand, it’s the person you fail to fire!

Be Sticky

What exactly is stickiness? That is when your brand has reached a point where you are the preferred choice in your market. That comes from practicing the two steps above. Without a crystal-clear brand message and consistency in executing the brand promise, you will never become a brand that is sticky. You become a brand most don’t know about, avoid, or make fun of on the internet. Some say that any PR is good. No. Bad PR cuts brands down in today's internet-connected world.

Here's the real secret to becoming a sticky brand: It’s not you saying how great you are.  It’s your guests saying how great you are!

Answer this question: Why do I drive to your restaurant?

The answer really needs to be unique. It’s need to stand out. It needs an emotional element. If you reply with “good food and service,” just remember good is the standard today. Good is like getting a “C” on your report card. It’s average and being average is not memorable or desirable if you want your brand to be sticky. Average is not where you want to be in today’s market. Average is a failing formula. Average, basically…sucks.

So, take a long hard look at what messages your restaurant brand is sending. Now, step into the eyes of the guest and try to see your brand through their eyes. If you see different point of views, then you have some mixed messages to clear up. It’s not easy to be objective at times. It’s not easy to take a hard look at your flaws. It’s even harder to admit that and make changes.

That is why so many restaurants remain the same and eventually fade away. If you want to grow your restaurant brand and move toward becoming sticky, you need ask yourself hard questions and seek viable solutions. Einstein said it best, “Insanity: doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.” You just need to make a decision right now to stop the insanity.