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Food Service Industry Updates

Been in a Good Food Fight Lately?


It is not enough to win customers. Other restaurants must lose.

Or you must defeat the kitchen at home. Or customers’ temptation to skip a meal. Or the gas station across the street — unless you are the gas station across the street, in which case, now you’re in the fight. Rage on, surprisingly delicious deli sandwich with a buzzleberry slurpo on the side. Go! Fight! Pump! Win!

Fighting is fun. Have you seen the movie “Roadhouse,” which airs every afternoon on one of the cable channels?

Or are you sitting chastely to the side, shirt tucked in and hands folded, calmly running your marketing program to yourself as if there’s not a brawl happening?

Get in there! People are either choosing your restaurant today, or someone else’s, or they’re staying home. It’s you versus The Entire Rest of the World. Here are some ideas for throwing down.

1. Pick a Fight You Can Win

Choose your sparring partner well. Find their weakness. Chick-fil-A goes after burgers with its desperate-not-to-be-ground-beef mascots — making it hard for burger places to win against a chicken sandwich specialist. They’re coming up on 30 years of anti-burger pro-cow billboards (and a cow appreciation day each year, which they encouraged people to celebrate by dressing up as cows at home during the pandemic). On the flipside, when IHOP briefly pretended it was a burger place a few years ago (for fun), those fierce snark warriors on the Wendy’s Twitter feed attacked: “Not really afraid of the burgers from a place that decided pancakes were too hard.” 

IHOB (b for burger) had to know it was entering a melee, though who knows — probably that act of aggression from Wendy’s helped spread the promotion a little further. Fights are unpredictable. 

You ready? 

If you can’t determine a feature of your restaurant or brand that competes well against another restaurant, (a) hmmm, that might be a larger issue; and (b) maybe you can come out against something “conceptual?” Like, you’re against the humdrum of staying home (especially post-pandemic). You’re against eating junky food just because your customer thinks they’re too busy/broke/poorly dressed. Or you’re against the drudgery of dishes, heating up the kitchen, the endless chore of planning and prepping and cooking family meals. Every Mother’s Day restaurants clamber to say (while making culturally tone-deaf assumptions about marriage roles), “Let us do the cooking today!” Might consider doing that for other days. 

2. Fight Fair, Fight Clean

In focus groups, people say they don’t like brands that disparage the competition. What they mean is they don’t like brands that disparage the competition unfairly. No bullies. But people actually love when a brand calmly fights fair, or funny — witness Wendy’s whole approach to Twitter.

Great example: A few years ago Popeyes introduced a chicken sandwich that bore resemblance to how Chick-fil-A does it, and the spotty cow company subtweeted “Bun + Chicken + Pickles = all [heart emoji] for the original” which, to Popeyes, seemed a little drama queenish. Popeyes tweeted back: “… y’all good?” Suddenly it was war. Only, it was their followers who did the fighting, all over social media. The companies mostly stood back and let their fans duke it out. Popeyes sold out of chicken way before anticipated, and an ad consultancy reported that Popeyes received about $23.25 million in free advertising during the fight.

Note: You might have noticed already, but a lot of these spats happen on social media. In fact, while I was writing this, I noticed a tweet that said, “Why do the chicken sandwiches have to fight” and the very first reply was Zaxby’s: “Long ago the chicken sandwiches lived together in harmony” [with the no-caps-no-punctuation-unless-totally-necessary style expected of internet dialogue]. Pay attention to your feeds, and respond, respond, respond. 

You ready?

If you think your fans have your back, and you honestly believe you can equal or best the current market leader, stick a subtly humorous rock in that sling and ever-so-casually heave it at Goliath. 

3. Punch Up! If You Can’t Punch Up, Punch Across and Over

Never punch down. McDonald’s making fun of the local burger joint would be weird and mean. 

On the other hand, McDonald’s making fun of Starbucks and other high-end coffee? That went pretty well (TV commercial: Two pretentious dudes dressed in dark colors with wire-rim glasses at a high-end coffee shop — one says, as he swirls his classy black ceramic cup, “Did you hear McDonald’s has cappuccinos now?” His soul-patch-sporting friend says, contemptuously, “McDonald’s” then closes his philosophy book and continues, with relief, “That’s awesome! I can shave this thing off my face!” as the other removes his scarf, etc.). 

You ready?

Who’s the biggest player in your niche, or your nearest competitor? What aren’t they doing? Once we worked for a regional restaurant that served burgers ’n shakes like all the major quick-service restaurant players, but also had table service. So we featured china, silverware and servers in our commercials. That differentiation won a lot of occasions from weary diners looking to relax. You are not alone — compare and contrast! 

Not ready yet?

Probably there’s someone on your team who thinks it’s beneath your brand to be aggressive. But I’ll bet there’s a topic on which your restaurant could be playfully competitive. 

Take, for example, when Taco Bell introduced breakfast: They implied there were only two real choices, McDonald’s and their new products. Exaggerated, yes. Even silly. But that immediately elevated Taco Bell breakfast. 

When we worked for that burger-shake-n-table-service restaurant, one of the board members was a respected big wig at the agency who handled Coca-Cola in its heyday. He was strongly against “giving the competition free publicity.” In his experience with Big Dog Coke, it was foolish to name the competition. But being a challenger is different. This philosophical discussion peaked when we presented a storyboard with a barely legal mock up of the famous “Billions Served” sign and a server saying, “We don’t doubt the billions; it’s the ‘served’ part we have trouble with.” Mr. Coke relented. The ad ran, alongside other snappy, clever, factual ways the restaurant was a cut above fast food. Sales went up. 

4. Play to the Camera

Have fun with it. Establish your voice and use it to goof around on social media — people there eat playful competition up. You can make it about anything! Jimmy John’s tweeted, “Sup, @Wendys? [wink emoji] #KissAGingerDay” on that made-up holiday. Wendy’s tweeted back, “@jimmyjohns This is moving too fast. We’re starting to freak. #KissAGingerDay” (playing off the freaky fast campaign for the sub shop). Those guys are in different categories, technically, though location might make them competitors. Either way, being gamely antagonistic makes them both look lively.

You ready?

Try it. Pick a hashtag, pick a so-called nemesis, see what happens.

5. Punch a Shadow. Or One of Those Speed Bags

Determined to remain above the fray? Well, you can at least imply an adversary. Jimmy John’s squares off against less-than-freaky delivery. Sonic is anti-getting out of your car. Little Caesars comes out against slower pizza that costs more than five bucks. In every case, having an implied adversary adds spunk, spice, life to their campaigns.  

Contrariwise, Dairy Queen blandly proclaims “Happy tastes good,” as Applebee’s murmurs “Eatin’ good in the neighborhood.” Their communications wander all over the place. Though those restaurants execute in such a way that their brands succeed, their communications tend toward the flat and self-congratulatory. They’re not pushing against anything, and it feels like it. Their personalities seem generic.

Be bold. Join in. Someone’s gonna win tonight, and someone’s gonna lose. With clear eyes and full hearts, I think you know what to do. 

Study the films. Recognize where they’re vulnerable, then exploit it. 

Play like a champion today.

Charlie Hopper, principal/writer of ad agency Young & Laramore, shares views on restaurant marketing at SellingEating.com, as well as in recently published books “Nuggets, Nibbles, Morsels, Crumbs: Selected Restaurant Marketing Columns from Food & Drink International,” and “Selling Eating: Restaurant Marketing Beyond the Word Delicious.”