Goodbye Ruby Tuesday?

To use a clichéd musical-themed pun, we could soon be saying goodbye to Ruby Tuesday. The Tennessee-based bar and grill restaurant chain announced this past March that they would be putting themselves up for sale or a potential merger. The unsurprising announcement comes after years of declining sales and location closures for the brand that thrived in the 1990s and early 2000s. Ruby Tuesday has not seen a year of growth since 2011 and approximately 100 locations closed in 2016 alone. The chain had also recently taken to selling certain locations to investors in sale-leaseback deals, foreshadowing the brand’s desperate move to come. More than anything, the sale of Ruby Tuesday signals an end to the reign of the casual dining category of the food industry.

Ruby Tuesday can’t seem to resurrect itself.

Unfortunately for Ruby Tuesday’s executives, the announcement also comes after years of attempts at menu innovation and risky marketing decisions. In 2016, Ruby Tuesday gained a new CMO and re-focused their advertising efforts on targeting families, especially millennial moms; in previous years, the brand had tried to do away with their focus on the family and move to a more adults-only aesthetic, even going as far as to remove diaper-changing stations from restaurant bathrooms. This attempt at brand revitalization resulted in removing advertising dollars from television completely, choosing instead to focus on paid social advertising and online video with Hulu and YouTube.

The nontraditional move was risky but allowed the struggling restaurant chain to geo-target their advertising to areas surrounding their locations, specifically reach their chosen audience and tell more emotional visual stories than a mere 30-second television spot could ever allow. 2016 also saw Ruby Tuesday honing in on their Garden Bar, a self-service salad bar, in advertising. There was an introduction of new, fresh Garden Bar ingredients, better to serve the moms the brand desperately wanted to appease. For all of their risk, it seems that the brand’s moves did not result in much reward.

Ruby Tuesday’s attempt to reinvent themselves is a great example of marketing trial and error, but it also signals trouble for the casual dining industry as a whole. Similar restaurant chains like Olive Garden and Applebee’s are struggling as well, though those brands have not made such brazen attempts at menu and marketing changes like Ruby Tuesday. Both still favor a heavily TV-focused media rotation, insisting that inundating consumers’ screens will work in their favor, and rely on limited time offers and slashed prices in order to attempt to make a splash in a dining landscape that currently favors fast casual restaurants and healthy food trends.

You wouldn’t exactly go to Olive Garden and eat their bottomless breadsticks if you were looking for a healthy place to eat out with your family, but a “two entrees for the price of one” deal can only do so much to convince you otherwise.

How casual dining can survive a changing industry.

So, were Ruby Tuesday’s last-ditch attempts to make a profit worthwhile? Yes and no. The re-focus on family dining and adding new ingredients to the Garden Bar menu prove that the brand wasn’t willing to go down without a fight.

The move away from traditional advertising and increased efforts in paid social advertising were innovative and forward-thinking, particularly because TV commercials are a familiar and effective way for brands to reach a wider audience and straying from that tried-and-true model will always be perilous. However, those risks might also have contributed to the chain’s demise. Other casual dining restaurant chains have stayed the course, choosing to put the majority of their ad dollars in television and not make drastic changes to their menus.

Those chains are still open for business, though they might soon follow in Ruby Tuesday’s worn footsteps. In February 2017, Applebee’s posted their sixth straight negative sales quarter and in March their CEO was ousted. Bloomin’ Brands, which owns casual dining chains Outback Steakhouse and Carrabba’s Grill, recently announced plans to close 43 locations after a rough 2016. Though brand reinvention wasn’t to be for Ruby Tuesday, perhaps other troubled chains could take a few notes from their demise and, at the very least, go down swinging

3 ways to maximize LTOs using scarcity bias

Limited time offers (LTOs) are effective because people believe they won’t be able to have that meal after a certain period. This activates a mental state called scarcity bias. Airline websites are the best at activating scarcity bias to sell a reservation. You’ve no doubt noticed the call out reading “Only 2 seats left at this price,” which creates an urgency for you to book before the person logged on across town does so first.

scarcity, traffic, demand, brand
Only 3 left at this price!

McDonald’s has an annual goldmine in the McRib. By offering it each year as an LTO, they create excitement and demand that wouldn’t likely be sustained for a permanent menu item. Consumers have told us they don’t plan much for most of their dining occasions. The LTO has to earn a date on the calendar for your brand.

Most restaurant brands intend LTOs to drive traffic in a contained window. Either explicitly or in small type, they’ll identify that is is available for a limited time only. But the assumption is made that consumers register the expiration date on the offer. Without that information, it is unclear that the offer is scarce.

1. How long is limited?

As consumers continue to be buried in ad messages, it gets harder and harder to retain information. When preparing ad communications for an LTO, marketers tend to look at the pieces in a vacuum. Consider all the noise around the piece. There are several key facts that the viewer must take away to be drawn in. First and foremost, how long is limited?
Most brands hide the end date. Test making an end date visible. Consumers will have a timeline to fit the offer into their schedule.

If the offer goes ends up exceeding the end date, it can always be messaged as a positive. Extended due to popular demand.

Be aggressive about reminding your audience that they might miss their chance to try this or have it one last time.

2. Make LTOs special

There are unlimited options. Every day, people can get whatever they crave. It’s important that your LTO has something unique in the market if you want to capture new customers. How unique? Unicorn Frappuccino different. Getting attention isn’t easy. If the brand is focused on scarcity as a strategy, create something hard to find.

If the offer is intended to earn extra visits from current customers, the offer can be something a little less out there. But it has to stand out enough to draw interest and make them put a date on the calendar.

3. The end is near

If every brand were buying network television, this would be terrible advice. But with digital and social channels, updating creative with reminders is affordable and effective. Now that the end date is clear, be bold. Add a count down to digital creative. Be aggressive about reminding your audience that they might miss their chance to try this or have it one last time.

Not ready to be so bold? Test count down messaging for your next offer exclusively with paid social. It can be targeted to a specific area – from a DMA to a single store. This test can inform future approaches and expanded based on results.

Food trends and brand optimization

Spend some time looking through the time capsule of January’s food trends listicles and something interesting pops up quickly. Most of these food trends don’t apply to your brand. I can write that with confidence despite not knowing for sure which brand you’re from. The problem with endless choice and (endless content for that matter) is that people can chase down niche interests; and each niche interest can become a trend.

Items on your menu should be built to generate interest, for sure. But it’s also important that brands stay in their lane. If your brand is build on fresh, stir-fried flavors, a hamburger might be an awkward addition. Seems easy until burgers show up on a list of top food trends. When we see the burger place next store doing well, we want to add something to our menu to get in on the trend, avoid the veto and compete with the leaders.

What can happen over time is the endless addition of items that build to a trend, but stretch the brand beyond normal range. Especially for brands coming from lower sales, the temptation to add trendy items is huge. But a focus on the core is critical for brands hoping to turn it around.

Inside food trends

Instead of adding items from the latest pile of food trends, understand the reason that each trend is catching on and build an item to capitalize on the ‘why.’ Kombucha and brain stimulants aren’t right for most mass brands, but the trend is about consumers maximizing perceived benefits from their food. Find ways to highlight ingredients that have a positive effect. This might be as simple as Chick-Fil-A’s recent addition of kale salad in place of the higher calorie cole slaw.

Take what works from the trend and apply it to your core customer. Despite the press that a lot of food trends get, most are so niche that there isn’t an audience that will change traffic. But incorporating an element into your menu can earn credit with those aware of the trend.

Improve core items

Sticking with the craveable core items of your brand forces your team to work to make each item as great as it can be. Ever been to a diner? They have a menu 20 pages long and a two-star Yelp! review because they keep adding items but don’t do any of them particularly well. Spend the time to make your menu unique within your category. If the trend is charcuterie, that might be a signal to focus on the cuts of meat on the menu. Look at what Arby’s is doing with their menu.

The goal is to take what the brand is best at and optimize it. For every wild new item added, there is distraction added to the operations which can slow down the kitchen and lead to service lapses.

Just say no

Discipline is easy when things are going well. If it’s not clear how a trend fits with your concept, walk away. Allow the independent shop down the street experiment with fermentation. If your core customer isn’t begging for it, or leaving you to get it elsewhere, be brave enough to pass.

It’s easy to get caught up in the hype of food trends. They tend to get the short-term attention. The key is to ensure that your brand is incorporating the parts of the food trends that work for your brand – and your guests.