NPS scores don’t lie: nobody loves your brand.

Tucked in an innocuous Pollfish survey about consumer attitudes on Valentine’s Day was something a bit sinister. You’ll have to scroll a bit to find it. An NPS (Net Promoter Score) question about top casual dining brands added to the survey shows lukewarm reception to all of the options.

The top performing result was Red Lobster, receiving a just barely positive NPS score of 1. To be fair, the question was highly specific “How likely are you to recommend eating at this national chain restaurant for Valentine’s Day to a friend or colleague?” But for the most common and accessible (and highly branded) chains, scores this low are troubling.

Ok, this question is flawed, making true conclusion on NPS for these brands a stretch. For the purpose of argument, tell me if anyone is surprised that these brands scored so low. People don’t love these brands. People don’t love most brands. Brands exist to meet a customer need. But rare brands transcend that moment of need to become something uniquely desired or loved.

The NPS of a brand is a simple (albeit imperfect) way to measure this love. Low scores, even above average scores indicate some level of shame in using the brand. Low scores indicate a lack of willingness to tell others about a visited to the brand. This also indicates brands with declining traffic. Only top scores indicate the kind of love your advertising agency predicts their latest idea will generate: brand evangelism. But it won’t.

Here’s what does. Distinctive elements of service combined with unique food and drink – delivered in a way that indicates to a customer that your brand understands them. Fast casual brands quickly earned favorability by addressing an insight into casual dining customers. That is, faster but not worse. Cheaper, but not microwaved. They earned love (recommendation level love) by caring about customers. But not all fast casual brands achieved it. Only the best ones.

Most brands lack the brand awareness, favorability and resources of the brands included on the poll.

Arguably, the poll in question is a who’s who of the best in casual dining. Red Lobster, Olive Garden, Outback Steakhouse, The Cheesecake Factory, TGI Friday’s. Most surprising here is the poor NPS performance of The Cheesecake Factory, always a top performer in food quality and service. But have they or the others met changing expectations and demands of dining customers?

They’re mostly innovating inside what they consider their moat. They consider the table side experience and length of the meal to be a strength or at least a differentiator. To build on that, they’ve added offers like all-you-can-eat appetizers or even buy one, get one to go entrees. If the food is considered average, how will more of it make them above average? They’ve added kiosks or other touches to make their experience feel more digital.

They may have missed. The moat for casual dining is service. Making guests feel special, demonstrating appreciation for their business. All of the brands mentioned here have extensive recruiting and training programs, to be certain. But if the new wave of competition (fast casuals) is focused on speed and food innovation, casual dining can immediately differentiate with person-to-person interaction at the table. For casual dining brands, the space to win is hospitality. Technology can work only if it improves hospitality.

Most brands lack the brand awareness, favorability and resources of the brands included on the poll. With this collection scoring as it did, how would the rest of the casual dining field fare?

The case for local store marketing.

In our recent article about social media reviews, we noted that comments from one market can affect traffic and sales in other parts of your organization. This is an example of ways that the connected world can disrupt the goals of a restaurant brand. For this reason and more, it’s important to consider the ways in which local store marketing can shape brand perception.

True, your brand might exist across a city, a market, a region, a country or beyond. But this doesn’t take the focus off the need to win at the location level. Each location has to appeal to the consumers nearby who compare to other options. The whole shooting match. Whether you have 5 stores or 500, losing to local competitors means losing system-wide.

In your neighborhood, think about the independent restaurant that always has a wait. It certainly isn’t out-marketing the global brand across the street, yet there’s no line at Olive Garden. In fact, it may not be doing any local store marketing at all. Except it is. By having staff who care about the place, and the customers. By hosting meals for local groups. Even offering discounts through their neighborhood commerce association or those amateurish flyers on the cork board at the dry cleaner. By serving good food people like, and treating them nicely without having to explain that something is the way it is because of ‘corporate.’

But let’s redefine ‘local store marketing.’ It’s not marketing. It’s just caring. The difference between a conference call about store #1189 and this store on Franklin Avenue. Near Willow Road Elementary. With Cub Scout Pack 362. Next to a Dunkin’ Donuts, a Friendly’s, a Chase bank branch, a PathMark and two independent garden centers. Knowing that level of nuance helps the operator better prepare their staff for the daily visitors.

Having a plan to execute at a neighborhood level can help overcome flaws in the brand level marketing. Failing to execute on local store marketing even once can undo the best loved brand work. It’s not about getting everything right. It’s more about limiting what goes wrong, or more importantly owning it when something does go wrong. Because it certainly will.

Local store marketing is less a function of marketing than it is of operations. Because the best local store marketing that is done is good execution at the location level. From a tactical perspective, sophisticated campaigns and materials delivered to franchisees or to regional managers are a helpful way to drive the brand message into communities. What happens if that works and the store experience falls flat?

But when a customer walks in without seeing any marketing and has a great experience, another outcome can be predicted. That customer becomes an advocate. They make connections. They look for ways to tell people or bring people in.

When beginning planning for local store marketing campaigns, where do you start? With the marketing objectives? Instead, consider the community objectives that match your brand. Typically, marketing starts with the brand but the best always starts with the customer. In this case, the customer is the entire community. Create a program for managers to think about the neighborhood and choose ways to fit the brand into the community. Do it right, and the locals will find ways to fit themselves into the brand.

Is brand heritage actually a strength?

So many new competitors. New formats. From people building out the Chipotle of _____ model to every cuisine to Eatsa re-introducing¬†automated ordering. Every brand is innovating. And it’s working. Older brands relying on heritage are racing to keep up.

If consumers come back to Pizza Inn is it really because of its heritage?

In this NRN interview with Rave Restaurants new CEO, Scott Crane cites the heritage of Pizza Inn as a strength of the brand. It’s telling that for its sister company Pie Five, Mr. Crane cites potential for innovation as its strength. That is the challenge older brands face.

Rave has a brand on either end of the continuum. Pizza Inn has certainly faced challenges but there is potential for a rebound as pizza has remained strong as a category even through the traffic trough of 2016. Pie Five has experienced growth, along with many fast casual and pizza brands. Pizza Inn has faltered in same store sales growth and average unit volume. But if consumers come back to Pizza Inn is it really because of its heritage? Is the food better because it’s been in business for 60 years? Is the experience unique?

The question is difficult to answer because so few brands stand pat. White Castle has been working to update their brand for the past 15 years, though the food offering and experience has remained largely in tact. Why? Because people come for the food. The olde English logotype wasn’t helping draw customers, but their unique sliders still did. In n’ Out Burger has not changed many things about their experience that would be obvious to most guests. They dependably execute the same food and experience but don’t lead with heritage in their marketing. Instead, they focus on the craveable burgers. Burger King has tried to keep up with the times, but dips back into their heritage in an ironic way, such as their recurring use of The King mascot. The mascot is a symbol of their heritage, but it is in no way explicit.

Another brand that could rely on a legacy story but chooses not to is Denny’s. Instead of almost ever acknowledging their heritage in diner foods, the brand acts very young and modern. They use social media more effectively than most tweens and they explore video and non-traditional media.

People are enamored with the new. With innovation. With disruptors. The number of brand categories in which heritage is a significant advantage is shrinking. Try to name one. Automotive may have been the last stronghold, but Tesla and a dozen startup local auto manufacturers are demonstrating that heritage isn’t necessarily a consumer benefit.

Looking at certain categories in the restaurant world there are places that heritage still plays. Steakhouses have proven that longevity and reputation for procuring the choicest beef and having a unique preparation are a consumer benefit. Morton’s, Smith & Wollensky, Ruth’s Chris own a version of this by having a unique heritage. But visit Morton’s website and see that even they are more focused on the new. New dishes, a new TV tie in. They put heritage in the back seat. Is this a miss on the part of the brand? Or do they know that the brand heritage doesn’t drive visits?

Brands that do focus on heritage know one important thing. They had better deliver on that promise. If a brand like Real Mex’s El Torito asserts itself as authentic Mexican cuisine using the 60 year old recipes of its founder, the food and the experience better align with that promise. If it does, customers can be wowed. When it falls short of authentic, guests notice.

From a brand perspective, finding something unique about a company that separates it from competitors is fantastic. Heritage may be that unique element. There are pitfalls to putting a focus on heritage, especially when walking the tightrope of staying current in the age of constant innovation. The critical exercise that restaurant brands must do is explaining why that heritage is worth my dining dollars.