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Why labor and technology challenges are inextricably linked to brand strategy

Brand strategy is business strategy, and that thinking can save the restaurant industry

2020 absolutely shook the ground of the restaurant industry and the shaking hasn’t stopped. While most are familiar with the obviously negative implications on sales and revenue, those aspects represent the end result and not the full diagnosis. A deeper dive into the industry quickly uncovers multiple problem areas that ladder up to the decline in sales and revenue. Problems like dated technology stacks, arguably archaic employment practices, and industrial-era mindsets when it comes to leadership across the c-suite have all contributed to exacerbating the effects of the pandemic. And, that may not be solely a bad thing.

At the risk of sounding like the proverbial carpenter who only sees nails, the pandemic’s negative effects point directly to a branding problem in my analysis. For too long in the restaurant industry, branding has been relegated as solely a marketing department concern. Executives not in that department have more often than no paid lip service at best to the implications of brand strategy as a company strategy. But when I look at the aftershocks of Coronavirus, what I see are areas of a healthy company that could have, and should have, collectively been addressed through the lens of the brand strategy.

Take, for instance, the labor shortage. While political pundits revel in their self righteous bickering as to the reasons behind the shortage, cooler heads must prevail. It’s lazy and myopic to pin the entire problem on wages. Truth be told, it’s much more complex. Without digging too far into the various issues leading up to the problem, we can infer that it starts with leadership’s archaic idea that labor is nothing more than that: the services performed by workers for wages as distinguished from those rendered by entrepreneurs for profits.

Who would want to engage in that? That doesn’t sound very fulfilling and considering the nation, if not the world, has spent decades touting the need to “follow your passions” and “find fulfillment in your career” it’s no wonder the luster of the restaurant industry has tarnished.

When approached through the lens of a brand strategy as business strategy, it’s not “labor” that restaurants require. Experiential excellence delivered by a brand champion with eyes set on future professional growth is more in line with what restaurants truly need. And that only happens when a company is run with brand strategy at its epicenter.

Brand strategy starts with purpose, and purpose is what seems to be missing in most scenarios from middle management into the trenches of the back of house. In short, if your dishwasher doesn’t understand his or her role in the bigger picture, and cannot see a path to progress themselves, then what incentive do they have to put in a sustained effort? More importantly, what is the hourly rate that would motivate that desired behavior? Even if there were an accurate answer, I’d argue that the motivation would be temporary as the lack of purpose would inevitably rear its head once again.

That’s not the only area where myopic brand strategy has done a disservice to the restaurant experience. Technology is another, large case in point. The industry has notoriously been behind the times when it comes to technology. Even today, brands are pasting together loose integrations across out of the box solutions as a means to tick the box. Website experiences barely seamlessly integrate with online ordering which only partially integrates with point of sale and customer relationship management systems, and you can absolutely forget about a unified source of data truth. So what does that have to do with brand strategy, you may be asking?

When brand strategy is employed as a business strategy technology systems become something much more than means to an end. It becomes an authentic opportunity to live the brand’s promises and deliver reasons to believe them.

A strong brand strategy, that’s successfully activated, shifts utilitarian need into big opportunities. Brands who embrace this fully see fantastic returns. Think about Starbucks’ app, and the innovations produced by the McDonald’s team. These aren’t simply efforts to produce an app because apps were the cool thing to do. No, they were treated as investments in the brand experience with the Patron’s needs put first.

Yet, restaurant brands have been timid about spending budgets on technology beyond out of the box solutions. My guess is that it’s hard to justify the cost when those making the decisions do not fully buy into the brand strategy. If they did, it wouldn’t be a question of expenditure. It’d be one of investment and expected return on it. That’s a big difference.

While these two problems aren’t the only ones, they both demonstrate how many restaurant leaders have failed to see brand strategy as a business strategy. As a result, the pandemic’s effects have cut much deeper than a temporary reduction in traffic counts and sales. It’s opened up a wound that’s been there for quite some time.

Restaurant brands stand at the precipice of an important decision: will the strategy be proliferated throughout the organization, or will they continue to hammer home an industrial era mindset of “good food, good service is good enough.” If the latter applies, I have bad news for any would-be leader: good food and good service is not good enough. In fact, good enough isn’t good enough. The brand’s who understand this are the ones primed to not only come out of the pandemic stronger, they’ll thrive and charge ahead.

Either embrace brand strategy as business strategy, or start dusting off that resume, and hope that you work for a company who realizes that the strength of a brand isn’t in its marketing, but in its authentically activated tenets inside the organization.


By Joseph Szala

Founder at Vigor, a restaurant branding strategy and design agency. Founder at Grits & Grids, the number one website dedicated to sharing design and branding for restaurant, beverage, and hospitality brands.

Instagram: @vigorbranding

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