What must restaurants learn from experiential marketing?

August 8, 2017

By: Rafael Tonon

If customer experience is the future of marketing, food-related businesses have to concern themselves more about how they treat their guests than what they put in their plates

“It’s not that many restaurants that you are competing against. I think you’re competing for people’s time”, exclaimed Danny Meyer, CEO of Union Square Hospitality, who founded restaurants like Shake Shack, and has become one of the most important names in the food business nowadays in the United States. What Meyer refers to is something that is radically changing the day-to-day of food-related businesses around the world.


Apart from the fact that people have less time to dedicate to their everyday meals, this little time is being disputed by thousands of other things all the time. The big challenge for these businesses is, more than offer a good food, how to attract, to entertain and, afterall, to keep their costumers coming more often. With all the multitasking of our digital era, to gain someone’s attention is a truly hard effort.

Ideology matters 

That’s why restaurants and other food-related businesses noticed they have to engage their clients. Consumers do not want to go to places where they just like the food that is served; they also want to share the ideology of the place they eat. In the Age of Access, it is the consumer that adds identity to a brand, not the brand that adds identity to its consumer. And this is quite significant and transformative for the perception of the companies in these new times we live in. It is happening with all the things around us: car (Uber), music (streaming), travel (AirBnB), among other areas, as food, of course.

This means that the experiences – much more than possessions – have come to be valued. Who I am (or pretend to be) says much more about me than what I own. What I do represents me better than what I buy. Today the experience of people with the product is what defines this product.

The Age of Access transforms products into commodities and emphasizes the services associated with them or the experiences. That’s why the commercial relation based on personal experiences is being more valued.

It’s something restaurants have started to look at. From the menu to the music played, everything has to be used to hook the client, in an effort to not allow him to be distracted for even a second – to help battle what the trade calls “decision fatigue”.

When St. Roch Market food hall opened in New Orleans, its founder Will Donaldson insisted that each vendor use the same signage in order to not create a visual pollution that could hinder the client. Instead of music coming from individual stalls, he chose to have a central music playlist and a clipboard with all the food/beverage offerings. Without a clear, streamlined guide, “people can get confused and subconsciously shut down”, Donaldson said to Wall Street Journal.

food hall

Focus on the experience 

The success of food halls, by the way, is related to the experience they can offer beyond the food on the table: they seem more like a leisure outing than just going out to eat. The number of food halls grew 105% in 2016, and is predicted to double by 2019 in the U.S., according to commercial real-estate firm Cushman & Wakefield. From grabbing your own food at a stand to sharing the table with strangers, all of these make part of a more fun situation than just waiting for the waiter to come with the menu for you to simply order. People want to be more proactive when it comes to food. And that has to do with how they are wooed by restaurants and other businesses.

People want to consume products that have a background story. Not by chance, acclaimed Basque chef Andoni Luiz Aduriz recently said that stories are our sixth sense.

What makes our mouth water  is to know how that ingredient was harvested or why that salt from the Salt Valley of Añana (located in the province of Álava, in the Basque Country, which were formed beginning in the Triassic Period) taste so different from any other one.


Storytelling as marketing 

The storytelling has also reached the menus, not only in the descriptions of each ingrediente, which are getting more and more detailed (pointing the specific region it came from, the name of the producers behind it, its traceability, etc.), but also in its own format. Trick Dog, a San Francisco cocktail bar, for example, recently released a new menu made to look like a children’s book.

In partnership with McSweeney’s, a modern publishing house, the menu brings verses and illustrations made exclusively to the current season – they change the menu every six months. Still, this speaks to the pace at which bars and restaurants must innovate in order to keep up with the fast-paced industry. And to keep their clients attention.

Trick Dog

The content and the message matter as much as the offerings. And maybe they will matter even more, when experience tends to be more and more important as a decision factor for diners. If the stories are the sixty flavor, so restaurants need to tell the best ones to feed their customers’ imagination – more than their bellies.

Rafael Tonon

+ posts by Rafael

Rafael Tonon is a journalist and food writer. He writes about food, drinks and trends in gastronomy. He contributes to many media outlets, such as Eater, Vice, Slate and more. He maintains the trend food blog What the Fork.

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