The case against mobile apps for restaurant brands

The conversation inside every restaurant brand about apps is heated. There are technology providers, white label solutions and solo coders trying to sell your brand an app. Despite the glossy sales pitch, there are some things you should know about building in app. They definitely aren’t for everyone. Here, we lay out the case against building an app, and the ways to build traffic and sales without one. Want to hear the flip side? Read the companion piece that makes the counterpoint: The case for mobile apps for restaurant brands. On with the negative case.

An app won’t generate new customers alone

For every brand, driving customers into the restaurant is the lifeblood of your business. As marketers and operators, we tend to look at every new tool as if it can drive our business. It seems we are always one tool away from cracking our business wide open. Here’s the fact – no restaurant brand has successfully launched an app that wasn’t already having success. Vendors celebrate the successful case studies like Starbucks or Domino’s. Those brands were doing just fine in the traffic department prior to launching apps that were specifically designed to improve frequency and loyalty from their legions of customers. Brands think they can launch an app without including rewards or at least special offers are not being honest with themselves. If incentivized, intelligent discounting isn’t part of your plan, do not expect mobile apps to drive trial unless the app is truly ground breaking.

A growing number of mobile users report downloading zero new apps per month.

90% of mobile usage time is in apps.

This may sound like a pretty pro-app argument. The reality is that those apps are well established corporations investing billions into user acquisition and ongoing engagement. Congratulations, your brand will now be competing against Facebook, Google, Snapchat, Pandora, Netflix, Amazon, Apple and every media and entertainment company for screen real-estate. Think your brand is as much fun as Candy Crush?

Fewer app downloads every month

Despite the dominance in usage of mobile apps on smart phones, people are seeking out few new ones. According to comScore, new app downloads per user are trending down. In fact, a growing number of mobile users report downloading zero new apps per month. This means the battle for real estate on the home screen is getting more and more serious. How serious, half of all smart phone users fall into this zero app category.

Without serious innovation it won’t drive awareness or usage

Go ahead an try any five restaurant apps for brands you never use. They likely have the same feature set and he same set of flaws. If you’re not familiar with the restaurant, the app does little to drive a visit or a sale. People inside many brands believe the mere creation of the app will be newsworthy. It won’t. To break through with consumers, the app has to offer a truly interesting experience. That might mean a novel design or an integration with the store.

Are you prepared to market mobile apps?

In many cases, brands tell us the app is a solution to the problem of low awareness or increased competition. If you’re already challenged by marketing this new app will create a new problem. The app is a product of its own. Like any product it requires a marketing plan, a budget, support and maintenance. That’s a full-time commitment. Many brands looking to the app as a savior know how hard successful launching a string of LTOs can be. Marketing the app is no simpler.

Think social media blows up when there’s a problem in one restaurant? Wait until someone has a malfunctioning app in their hand. The app is not just an extension of the brand, a successful app can become the brand – and that is a double edged sword. Spend some time on the app store to see how competitive listings are for mobile apps. Seems almost as tough as marketing a restaurant, no?

Wide adoption of mobile web

Over two years ago, the number of smart phone users surpassed the number of desktop computer users. Not only are more people than ever using smartphones to browse and shop, but this tells us that more technology investments are being made to improve the basic infrastructure. The mobile web has arrived and is getting stronger everyday. This means that having a great mobile website will accomplish most of the things the average brand hopes an app will do. At least it will provide proof of concept that your customers want an app.

True, a website will lack some of the functionality for loyalty, but testing guest interest and understanding usage patterns on the web will allow you to design and build a more useful app. A mobile website will also allow for use on iOS, Android, Windows, Blackberry and any other platform out there and keep brands above the fray between mobile payment services.

As you can see, much consideration must be made before leaping into development of an app. The investment of time, resources and of course money are critical. Want a look on the bright side? Read the companion piece that makes the counterpoint: The case for mobile apps for restaurant brands.

Transcript of Food & Restaurant Podcast – Episode: Are You A True Digital Restaurant Brand?

Transcript of Food & Restaurant Marketing Podcast – Episode: Are You A True Digital Restaurant Brand?

[00:00:05] Adam Pierno: All right, welcome back to another episode of Food and Restaurant Marketing, I am Adam Pierno, your humble servant and host, and with me today is?

[00:00:14] Daniel Santy: Your arrogant servant and host Dan Santy.

[00:00:17] Adam: [laughs] We are back, we have a great topic today. We wrote an article about this a couple of weeks ago but this is something we’re talking about basically non-stop.

[00:00:28] Dan: Pretty much, yes.

[00:00:29] Adam: Pretty much. I don’t think it’s fad. Today’s topic, Is your brand really digital? Is the way you should pronounce that when you read it.

[00:00:39] Dan: Yes.

[00:00:39] Adam: What we want to know, today everything’s online, everything’s mobile, I have the power of a supercomputer in my pocket in the form of my phone. I can pretty much accomplish anything I want. Brands all think that they are on the leading age or doing ‘digital’ but are you really digital? Are you really understanding the principles of digital that make results happen, make things change and capitalize on behaviors that consumers are leaving every day.

[00:01:12] Dan: Yes, I think many many brands are way behind the curve in this area and I don’t know if they think they’re ahead of the curve, I don’t know if they think they are current or what the case may be, but the vast majority of brands really are behind the curve when it comes to the digital space, and part of that is, and that’s me being a jerk, part of that is the landscape, the ecosystem as I like to call it is in constant flux. So it becomes very difficult to really say, ” Hey, we’re ahead of the curve”.

A good friend of mine is a digital director at an agency, he’s hyper-critical of his shop, and that shop’s doing some pretty advanced things for their clients. It’s interesting to say people are behind the curve, I think I want to be careful when I say that, but I just want people to know that you should be changing with the ecosystem. That’s if you going to dive into digital, make sure you understand you’re going to have to change with the system.

[00:02:18] Adam: Yes, let’s just talk about something that you said is the curve. What do we think is the middle of the curve? What’s table stakes? What do you have to have to be considered even a current brand? We’ve been really digging into this topic across categories, beyond restaurants too but in other retail categories to understand this, but we see, there is are kind of a menu that should exist.

[00:02:44] Dan: Yes, I agree. Email marketing, I mean it sounds so mundane, but really if you think about it, those are some of your best customers because they’ve given you their data and said, “Yes, it’s okay to message me.” Staying current with your email marketing and make sure it’s tight, don’t over send, don’t send things that are ridiculous just to stay in front of the audience, again be relevant, we talk about that all the time. All these things you have to be very relevant.

[00:03:19] Adam: Right, so email is a great example. Having emails kind of table stakes, but having a great email program is being ahead of the curve, so having automated sense, having relevant personalized information that is thought out in catalogue and sent at the right time. That moves that email program, or even have an email program to sign up, put your card in a fish bowl to– ahead of the curve.

If you are doing it right and you have the right inputs in there and you can customize my message and say “You like this dish, here is a deal on that dish today, because we know you coming on Thursdays.”

[00:03:57] Dan: Right. Yes, and one last point on email marketing and that is, look at the analytics, see how they’re performing. When you pay attention to that, you can get rid of the under performing messaging and you can capitalize on the things that perform well. Now all of a sudden you’re again fine-tuning that messaging going forward and so your customers are going to appreciate that.

[00:04:25] Adam: Yes, look at the analytics is step one, do something with that is step two. We don’t have anything to say when people say, “Well we’ve got 50,000 subscribers,” and it’s like what did you do about knowing that? How big are you when you start segmenting and creating subgroups, and it’s not just our customers but this is our chicken customer, this is our beef customer, this is our dinner customer, this is our breakfast customer. Another thing that I think is kind of tables stakes, social media.

[00:04:53] Dan: Yes, unfortunately, no I’m just kidding. [laughter] It is, I mean there just billions and billions of interactions in social every day. You just need to capitalize on that, and we talked about it in a different podcast. The idea of putting up relevant content and then supporting it with paid social. It’s so critical for those of you who understand how the algorithms work, your organics reach is very low these days.

[00:05:29] Adam: It’s lowest, 2%, if you’re a brand, it’s over 500,000 followers.

[00:05:35] Dan: Yes. It’s a pay-to-play model, but it’s not terribly expensive and you can control it and once again measure it and test and optimize.

[00:05:45] Adam: But just being there, it’s expected value. As a consumer we know from our studies and reading other research studies that consumers expect whatever platform they use, they expect brands to be there and when they want to complain or ask a question or if they’re on kick and they want to ask a question on the brand, they expect you to be there, and when you’re not, they feel like there’s something missing about the brand.

That doesn’t mean you have to be there, but it means you should be thoughtful about where you are and how you reaching the majority of your customers and not just people in general where you can get Facebook.

[00:06:17] Dan: Exactly. The final one I guess for table stakes is your site, your website, and please please understand that it needs to be mobile optimized, it’s just so critical. Go to a restaurant brand, maybe I’m just trying to find the nearest location, or I want to see a menu, whatever, make sure I can look at it on my smartphone really easily and visibly.

[00:06:51] Adam: Yes, and on the phone I mean you should, this point site should be built for the phone first. We’re all retail, we want to drive customers, we want to drive traffic. Location should be the first thing that’s popping up, and it’s saying there’s one a quarter mile away from you, would you like directions? Here’s the menu to that store.

[00:07:09] Dan: Right, absolutely.

[00:07:09] Adam: Right? Not just a generic PDF, please no more PDF menus. Give me a menu that I can scroll, that customers can copy out an item out of it, share it and send it to somebody and say, “This is what you wanted me to order.” I mean make it easy for people to shop you with one thumb.

[00:07:26] Dan: Ask yourself, “what sites do you use on your mobile device and enjoy so much?” Then say, “what is it about those sites that make it a better user experience? Make it a simple user experience.” Make sure you’re thinking about that for your own site, or if you have someone building your site, which most people do obviously, or designing it, make sure they understand these fundamentals as well.

[00:07:52] Adam: Yes, it’s really funny that when we’re here talking on the Food & Restaurant Marketing Podcast, you don’t have to draw inspiration just from that category. Go look and see what other brands are doing. When we talk about social media, go look and see who is really doing a great job engaging customers or creating content or whatever you want to do, and borrow freely, don’t steal. Be inspired by those, then apply it to your own brand.

I think when you look at people that are doing really well in this space, Denny’s has taken it to a next level of really being on top of it, great community management for a brand that you wouldn’t think even have a community.

[00:08:36] Dan: Right. Indeed you bring up a community management that is so critical. If customers are contacting you or tweeting or posting on Facebook, whatever the case may be, make sure you’re responding. Even if you just private message them or whatever the case may be, that’s all they want, they want attention, they want somebody that say, “Oh my gosh, I’m so sorry you had that bad experience,” and vice versa, they might be tweeting, “Just had a great meal at Quiznos.” I don’t think I’ve seen that tweet in a while–[laughter] but reward that person too and thank them.

[00:09:16] Adam: Yes, and I think what gets ahead of the curve and community management is the voice, the tone. The speed of the reply is important but really, again going back to Denny’s, the way they have been winning customers is just through a consistency of wit and demonstrating that they’re connected to the internet and knowing what’s happening almost all the time. In fact setting trends. Let’s be honest 10 years ago for Denny’s, it was not a relevant brand.

[00:09:45] Dan: Absolutely.

[00:09:45] Adam: They’re forcing themselves to be relevant through conversations that are happening and getting picked up, and copied and pasted and tweeted and reposted across the internet. That’s a huge win for probably the three entry level people that are responding to tweets all day.

[00:10:02] Dan: Yes. Another pet peeve of mine is when the brand is trying to get you to tweet about me. Tweet about me and I’ll do something for you. I think that kind of tends to be disingenuous. This is off category but I made a hotel reservation just the other day and a like box came up after the reservation said, “Hey, like us on Facebook” or in one of the social– they made it very easy for me to do it– should I do it?
Have not stayed at this property, so I’m not going to tweet about something I haven’t stayed at yet. I thought it was a little too aggressive and then they emailed me that same message. Now that was a bit irritating.

[00:10:42] Adam: Over the line?

[00:10:43] Dan: Yes, I gave you my email address so you could send me my confirmation not so you could continue to market to me. I think we have to be wise about how you communicate with your customers and what you’re asking them to do. Like us on Facebook, well give me a reason why.

[00:11:00] Adam: Absolutely, another thing when we think about brands that really are digital. That really get it. Domino’s is a great example. They just keep innovating. They keep on going further, further and further with finding new ways to get people to order, engage with the brand in digital space. That’s great in and of itself. I can order with an emoji. That’s cool and it’s fun and I’m never going to do it. What’s even better is that it’s an idea that gets PR.

[00:11:30] Dan: Exactly, the holy grail of a great marketing campaign is when it does get publicity because it carries itself so much further. People are going to see the story, go look it up online. All of a sudden you’re getting eyeballs, you’re not getting from your traditional TV buyer or whatever you may be doing. That’s a great point. It’s not easy to do at all. We’re not naive about that, but think about that and think about the programs that you have and put them out to the press. Let the press decide if they’re newsworthy or not, but not doing it at all, it’s not going to get picked up.

[00:12:12] Adam: Yes, part of the thing is having a mind for that. If that’s your goal. Thinking about that as you’re looking at ideas and programs as they come up. It’s like, “Could we pitch this? Is this an idea that could get press or is it just an idea?” Ultimately revenue is more valuable, but if you can also get press, that’s great. I kind of suspect the order with an emoji is more of a PR play than the actual. I don’t think anyone thought, “Oh, this is going to increase sales by this percentage.” The shareholders did not give that a standing O with Q4 call.

[00:12:46] Dan: Indeed, I read a great– dovetailing just more of this digital advertising. Read a great Buzzfeed article just the other day. Essentially, I think it was the CEO had pen this particular column. He was talking about the ad industry and the fact that we’re taking linear advertising and putting it in the digital space and how flawed that truly is because the digital space is its own animal and taking what we’re doing in a print ad or television commercial or whatever to try and make it fit into the digital realm is backwards. I couldn’t agree with him more. You’re going to be in that space make sure you think about how those ads, those ad units, the native advertising, whatever you’re doing is going to live with those publishers so that you could put it there in a meaningful way.

[00:13:49] Adam: Absolutely, banner ads are mostly a waste of time and that’s the exact meaning of is your brand really digital. Well, we have a display program or we run pre-roll. At least pre-roll tells your story. Video is powerful but really plugging in and understanding how people use digital, how they use mobile and creating a message that connects that relationship and a consumer creating that beautiful triangular value. That’s what real digital brands are doing. Domino’s order with an emoji, pizza tracker and all those things it just keeps on piling on and making it stronger and stronger.

[00:14:30] Dan: Agreed. What’s your take on apps, Adam? I know you have a pretty strong opinion about the app world. Should every brand have an app?

[00:14:41] Adam: No. I was actually with comScore a couple years ago. It was the late ’14, might have been early ’15 released the stat that said that monthly average app downloads had gotten to zero. [Editor’s note: It was actually September 2016] That people were just downloading fewer and fewer apps per month.

[00:15:01] Dan: I remember you bringing this to me.

[00:15:03] Adam: At its peak, it was 11 a month or 16 a month or something. This was across a general age group so it wasn’t specific to any demos. I’m sure there’s tweens out there that’s still downloading.

[00:15:13] Dan: Plenty of apps.

[00:15:14] Adam: Yes, and since I read that, I really have been paying attention and picking up people’s phones and looking at their phones and seeing what apps they have, looking for ideas. I’m down to two pages and maybe generously, maybe I have 25 apps on my phone. I don’t want to join the conversation with your brand. I eat a lot of QSR, a lot of Fast Casuals. I eat a decent amount of Casual Dining still. I’m probably the last one.
I don’t need an app unless there’s a value to it and I don’t need a coupon. It’s like I have the Delta Airlines app on my phone because it serves a really good purpose and does it in a really good way when I travel.

[00:16:00] Dan: I think what you’re talking about there, Delta is a great example and that’s function. It’s an important function. You’re simplifying something for me [unintelligible 00:16:12] to your point that the app has enormous value. I would think really long and hard about an app but I think is better, that is what we were talking about earlier in creating a pristine mobile web experience for your brand of whatever that may mean for you.

That is probably money better spent than trying to invest in an app because what people forget about the app. Now you’ve got to get people to download it so all of a sudden you got to spend marketing dollars promoting your app to get people to download it so hopefully, they’ll use it and now you’re not using those same. You’ve diluted your marketing budget when you could have been using that to be doing mobile advertising or SMS advertising whatever the case may be.

[00:17:02] Adam: That’s it, you nailed it. We talk about it when we were working with brands. We tell them if you’re committed to this you’re creating another product. Would you rather promote a day part or this app? Because now you have to pull people into this ecosystem to get the ROI out of it. Maybe, you might. I think you’re dead on, having a more powerful website is more important because then when it’s on my mind and I pull it up, I get the experience I want versus now the restaurant, your locations.

You’ve given up POP space to try to get people to download this app that they probably don’t want or they download it to get the coupon or whatever you’re incenting them with and then they delete it or they keep it and it’s on page nine of their phone and they never look at it again. Is that valuable? I don’t know. It’s debatable.

[00:17:53] Dan: It’s such a competitive space and I take your point, why do you have so few because so many don’t provide value. Why would I load up my screen with these things and never use them and I bet if you track your behavior of the apps, you do have it’s probably something like 80 20, 80% of your users have 20% of the apps you have on your phone.

[00:18:22] Adam: I’m sure. It’s probably Mail, Twitter and whatever game I’m playing. It’s those three things. You definitely hit the nail on the head. Delta as an example, I also have the Southwest app. Those make traveling easier. I can get the boarding pass. I don’t have to print anything if I’m on the road I just pull up that little QR code is the only place–

[00:18:46] Dan: Change my flight if I have to.

[00:18:48] Adam: Right, makes traveling easier, makes it simpler and so I keep those things on my phone. But does a restaurant app, how is that going to make my life easier if it’s for– is an Applebee’s app going to make my life easier?

[00:19:02] Dan: No.

[00:19:03] Adam: Is a Buffalo Wild Wings app? How will it improve the experience? I guess–

[00:19:08] Dan: No at all. [laughs] In our opinion.

[00:19:11] Adam: If I was a weekly customer and it gave me a coupon and let me order every week or predicted or did something. It reminded me, “Hey it’s time for your weekly–.” I don’t know. I don’t think I want that either, so why are we doing it. You’re paying for a location finder in most cases.

[00:19:26] Dan: Indeed. Well, here’s the next big subject that everybody’s talking about is data. Why is it crucial? Why is data so crucial and have the publishers in the world who are talking about data, ruin data by referring to it as big data which I think makes people go, “Oh man crap, what I’m I going to do with all this information,” because there is a lot of information available to us, but what information is really meaningful.

[00:20:01] Adam: You said it. Everybody’s talking about it but nobody is saying anything. It’s just like big data is really powerful. The brands that are truly digital brands know how to employ this data. They know what data they’re trying to collect. They have a precision about it. They’re smart and they have a plan for what they want to learn.

Start with a hypothesis. If you want to be a digital brand, figure out what you want to learn, and then say, “Okay. To do that, I need to capture this data.” We work with brands a lot on this particular aspect of how do we better know your costumers? what data do we need to collect?

[00:20:37] Dan: Exactly, and make sure, Adam said this earlier in the podcast, analysis. Analysis. That’s the important thing. It’s one thing to collect the data and that’s its own infrastructure need, to make sure you can actually collect data on what your costumers’ behavior is. Second, is to analyze that. Then third, of course, is to make conclusions and recommendations on and how’re you going to act on that analysis.

I think we miss that piece of the puzzle all too often. With as much data as there is today, it still kills me when I hear a brand say things anecdotally. Well, that didn’t work. It’s like, “Can someone please give me the analytics on that?” What does that mean? Does that mean zero people did whatever it was we wanted them to do? 10% did, and we usually want a 50% of that activity rate, whatever. I get so frustrated because I know the data is there to– maybe there to validate that it didn’t work, but let’s define success, let’s define failure.

[00:21:47] Adam: Yes, amen. I know we’re on the same page about this one. I think when you’re talking about measuring success versus failure and there’s a lot on the line. If you’re a public company, there’s a lot on the line between shareholder value. But for private companies too, there’s jobs on the line, there’s locations on the line. This stuff really matters. If we’re talking about measuring the difference between success and failure, one thing we are obsessed with is attribution.

If we have a campaign that’s about- let’s make it about a day part, so everybody’s launching breakfast right now, that’s the craze. What I would love to look back at this in 18 months and see who still has breakfast. What is really driving breakfast traffic? Which piece of your digital campaign is really working and doing that? Knowing that and going from the top end, so we did this native video series with a breakfast chef, and now breakfast is up 10%. Well, what percentage of those people went deep in the funnel and clicked and did something that you know they used a coupon and they went to your store.

[00:22:48] Dan: Agree because usually in a situation like that where you’re adding a day part or a whole new menu and set of items that are not typical to your brand, your regular costumers are going to try it. Digital lose a lunch over a breakfast a trip, so I think you’re absolutely right, Adam. Attribution is king because, again, that’s the thing that’s going to tell you what’s working and what’s not.

[00:23:20] Adam: Yes, you have to be able to track back. The last bit of this is actually going inside the store. We talked about Domino’s that has great tech to get me to order, and they don’t have an in-store experience to speak of, but Panera has added kiosks on which customers can order, customize their order, choose your sandwich, choose your soup, whatever they’re doing, and they go sit down wait and someone brings it out. It’s essentially a swap out, one for one, with a clerk versus this kiosk.

McDonald is also been testing it with the ‘your way’ platform that they did away with, but they kept the kiosks. Those are digital innovations that make sense for the brand. The digital menu boards are not.

[00:24:09] Dan: [laughs]

[00:24:10] Adam: That does not make you a digital brand. The Ziosk-

[00:24:13] Dan: I love that analogy.

[00:24:15] Adam: the Ziosk table-side tablet that sits on the table at Chili’s, also does not make you a digital brand.

[00:24:25] Dan: Not at all. I couldn’t agree with you more. I think that that example you’re giving, again, no different than the app that Panera kiosk is serving a really important customer experience, and that is speed of service. I don’t have just talk to somebody, I’m used to working in this environment, especially, all them- Forgive me for saying it, Millennials, Gen Z, who grown up with technology, they’re very comfortable with it. If you’re going to do that, though, make sure, again, that user experience is a stellar.

[00:25:00] Adam: That right there, the user experience, is what separates the digital brand from the not digital brands. The brands who are saying, “We’re digital. We have digital menu boards. We bought Ziosks for the table.” No, you put a TV on the table.

[00:25:13] Dan: [laughs] Right.

[00:25:15] Adam: Now you have distracted guests. You’ve actually broken the table experience when two kids fight over the Ziosk, or one person is consumed with a game and the other three people are eating. That doesn’t make the experience better, that’s what- I guess it took us a long time to get to this, and it’s not in our notes but- or the article, does your use of digital make your brand better? Does it make the experience better?

[00:25:42] Dan: Yes. I can give you another one that’s a pet peeve of mine, and this is at Fine Dining. Typically, I think some casual diners do this, but please don’t put your wine menu on an iPad.

[00:25:54] Adam: Oh God.

[00:25:55] Dan: I’ve got to scroll and scroll. I mean this is not the experience I want. I want to look at wine menus, I want to turn that page, that’s a bad experience in my opinion.

[00:26:08] Adam: There is something about–

[00:26:08] Dan: It serves no function except that you don’t have to print wine list anymore.

[00:26:13] Adam: But you could print a one-page wine list, it doesn’t have to be fancy. There’s something about the tactile flipping the page and it doesn’t have to be in a book, but- I agree. It’s especially weird on a Ziosk. I don’t want to pick my rosay from a computer screen and be like, “Oh, how about Rose number 91.”

[00:26:31] Dan: Yes, the waiter is standing over me and he’s just, “Would you like bold flavors or you like sweet.” And I’m like, “Go, please go away.” [laughs]

[00:26:40] Adam: That’s not making the experience better-

[00:26:41] Dan: No.

[00:26:42] Adam: -it’s making it awkward.

[00:26:43] Dan: Exactly.

[00:26:44] Adam: Super effing awkward.

[00:26:46] Dan: Well, I think we hit the digital realm here, that’s for sure. I love talking about digital because it is ever changing.

[00:26:55] Adam: Absolutely.

[00:26:56] Dan: That’s for sure. This won’t be the last time.

[00:26:58] Adam: Even by the time we record this, to the time we publish this podcast episode, a lot of things will change. Thank you for joining us. Because Dan and I are both extremely digital people, you can use the electronic mail to reach us. dan@foodandrestuarantmarketing.com or adam@foodandrestaurantmarketing or you can hit us on the Twitter, @F&RM is our Twitter handle. Visit the website. Please subscribe to the podcast if you like what you heard, or if you hated what you heard, subscribe anyway. All right, thanks a lot.

[00:27:30] [END OF AUDIO]

Transcriptions by Go Transcript.

discounting, coupon, offer, FSI, LTO, daypart

Listen to the episode: Are You A True Digital Restaurant Brand?

Casual vs Fast Casual – A comparison of media spending and social media

Casual Dining, Fast Casual. There has been much written about the battle for your stomach being waged between the two concept categories. Casual Dining, the aging champ, still hoping to hold on to its crown and Fast Casual, the plucky upstart finding new ways to surprise its foe and customers alike.

Fast Casual YOY sales growth is noted as almost double the rest of the restaurant industry. Traffic and sales for both categories can be easily compared. Digging a bit deeper, there is something else at play beyond those trend lines. In lieu of another inspection of those regularly reported numbers, we compared expenditures in media.

Using Kantar*, we pulled media spending for a two-year period by five brands casual dining and six fast casual brands. As you can see, over the course of two years casual dining spent almost 10 times as much as their competitors in fast casual. In television they spent over 10 times as much over that same timespan!

media spending casual dining fast casual

What’s telling is where the competition is closer: online. Fast casual brands spend just over half as much as the casual dining brands in the digital space. Not reported here is paid social and influencer marketing. For context, an analysis of four other brand categories outside of the restaurant space (beverage, CPG, finance, hospitality) we found that casual dining is actually the lowest reported spender in the digital space.

Looking at their media spend one might assume the growth was flip-flopped. But if media spend is a measure of outbound marketing, we wanted to juxtapose that against a measure of brand affinity and potentially loyalty – social media**. Looking at the same brands in casual an fast casual, we counted the social subscribers, comment volume and net sentiment of those comments over the same two year period as the media spends above.

social media metrics casual dining fast casual

Our hypothesis going into this research was that more media spend would lead to superior social media performance. But immediately, you can see spending 10 times as much on television only earns Casual Dining brands 17% more social media posts on average. Obviously, media is not being spent to attain social media comments, but at these rates, Casual Dining spent $329 per comment as a category; Fast Casual, $113. Staggering difference.

On top of that, the net sentiment of those posts is much higher for Fast Casual brands – and that’s including Chipotle’s terrible net sentiment of 47% – which brings down the average due to many posts about their recent woes.

Sentiment is important because it tells us whether people are posting positive or negative content about the topic, in this case – brands. Sentiment is measured here on a scale of -100 to +100, with zero being neutral. More people may be posting about Casual Dining brands, but those posting about Fast Casual brands are saying overwhelmingly positive things. Prior to Chipotle’s food safety lapses, we had recorded a net sentiment over 80 for the brands and used them as an example of positive sentiment.

Both post volume and sentiment might be a result of how these brands are using those online media dollars. Fast Casual definitely has tighter social integration in store and in online ad campaigns.

Where Casual Dining is leading obviously is in the number of Facebook subscribers (Likes). As a metric, they’re up 2-to-1 on Fast Casual. And isolating the online media spend of both category, Fast Casual has invested $3 for each Facebook page like, while Casual Dining spent only $2.54 as a category for each of theirs. This is actually indicative of the problem Casual Dining brands are having. Facebook has the oldest user base of all social platforms in the US, with the fastest growing user segment being those over 50. Facebook still has a large base of youthful users, but reaching them via the channel is nearly impossible without paying – organic reach is down around 6%.

As you can see, Casual Dining brands are clearly missing something. They’re spending much more than their Fast competition, but getting less in the way of sales and social recognition. In an upcoming post, we’ll provide deeper analysis into these comparative numbers.

Complete charts:
media spend social metrics casual dining fast casual
Want these numbers for your own? Get the raw sheet here.

*Kantar, though an industry standard tool for competitive media spend analysis, is only a guide. The numbers below are therefore best described as “reported spend.” Most mass media investments, such as national television are reliably included, while sponsorships and events will be predictably under-reported.

**All social data was pulled using Netbase. Without access to each account, we’re unable to track engagement on an account and post level or other deep funnel metrics. Posts reported are filtered to exclude content by each respective brand about itself.