Restaurants and the trend toward anti-brand.

anti-brand, restaurant, dining

I read an interesting article today by Tanya Gazdik on the anti-brand. In it, she points out that many brands are going low-fi to appear less polished and salesy. She cites a brand expert using upstart brands Casper and Thinx as examples.

Media fragmentation is creating more and more informal channels for consumers. As they grow, these channels become targets for brands. Think Snapchat or the proliferation of individual YouTube channels. Polished content doesn’t look right there. Since media has splintered, brands have to find smaller niche channels to reach their audiences. And they have to be clever to stand out there. Enter the anti-brand.

Thinx and Casper sell very specific consumer products. They can afford to take a unique tact to differentiate themselves from similar competitors. What about your restaurant brand? True, differentiation is as critical as it’s ever been. But how are you presenting the brand throughout the customer journey?

We’ve seen the slowdown of casual dining megabrands. This is partially a reflection of the same trend against slick brands rolling out across the country or world that Thinx is riding. On one hand, consumers have rebelled against franchises because they want more unique experiences. On the other hand, they demand to know what to expect from a brand. This is where the anti-brand narrative falls apart for restaurant franchises.

The efficiency of a known experience powers restaurant brands. This is why for individual restaurants, critical reviews and sites like Yelp! are so important. Most people seek context before they choose a restaurant. And for most meal occasions, the cost and time commitment of a fast food, fast casual or casual dining restaurant will provide quick context. Are you in the mood for a sit down meal? Do I want to keep the check under $10?

Your brand needs to quickly reflect these desires, as well as a description of the cuisine. Going anti-brand for a restaurant brand essentially means going independent. But even independent restaurateurs like Sam Fox create strong brands for each of their concepts. These brands communicate the menu and the style of the place before guests ever step inside. The brand makes independent restaurants attractive to customers, investors and potentially buyers. Unlike most independents, larger restaurant brands have to work across multiple markets. Someone in Dallas knows the food and drink will be just like the food in Des Moines.

For this reason, going anti-brand means going anti-mass. It is a trade-off between attracting a wide audience by being understood, or playing to the trend of losing the polish. The anti-brand diminishes the ability for people to recognize your offering or to tell others about it. California Pizza Kitchen was great from the launch of its original location. But as locations we opened, they had to standardize the offering to satisfy repeat visitors and to live up to expectations. If French Laundry went national, there would be standardized elements repeated in each location.

Does this mean we will see a reduction in branded “happy birthday” songs from restaurants? Probably. This level of polish will be one of the first things to go as we explore ways to incorporate the anti-brand ethos into restaurant brands. Maybe that’s a good thing.

Author: Adam Pierno

Adam Pierno has a one-of-a-kind perspective on restaurant and CPGs. He investigates the connections between strategy, media, digital and business goals employing social media listening, analysis and traditional consumer research to find meaningful insights for brands thinking about their futures.