Recently, I went to a lunch. As soon as I walked in, I was greeted by the event hostess. The host also stopped by to introduce himself. He showed us to the bar and offered me a drink. As the last guest arrived, we were ushered into the dinning room and an amuse-bouche was served.
Did you think I was describing a personal party? That was how it felt. I felt welcomed, and I felt connected to the hosts and the guests. But in fact, I was describing a loyalty member appreciation event hosted by Esquared Hospitality at one of their restaurants.
It was a “cooking class” for their loyalty members. Well, we didn’t do too much cooking. The
Chef demonstrated the cooking at his house inside his kitchen. The chef showed us how each dish of the meal was to be prepared. Then, we sat and enjoyed the meal and took home the recipe. Throughout it all, we chatted with the Chef, the General Manager (the host), and the Program Manager (the hostess). We all left with full bellies and the Chef’s secret recipes.
Many restaurant may offer a loyalty program. But that’s typically just a discount card for people who was going to stop by your restaurant anyway. (The same as loyalty card for grocery stores, etc.) It’s a glorified discount program, but there is no real loyalty cultivation. What Esquared Hospitality did here was to actually let their loyalty customers into their “home”. They let us know their names. Let us know them as people – not just a business. Ultimately, people like to buy from people, not business entities. Even the loyalty card arrives in the mail with a personal note from the company President.
As you think about your business, how can make your relationship with your customer personal. It may be a “cooking class”. It may be an online chat. It may be a lot of things. How can you invite them to your “home”?
Recently, I caught up with a food entrepreneur to discuss branding over lunch. Having been a Brand Manager for Fortune 500 companies, it was intriguing to hear the perspective of a small business owner.
She produces chia granola in NYC. It is currently only distributed in a handful of retailers. So, she thinks she’s a small brand. This mentality has raised a few questions on her branding initiatives:
- Is branding important on packaging, if no one really know our brand yet?
- Do I really need broad base marketing campaigns to build brand awareness if I am just now trying to build sales?
- Do I really need to think about brand loyalty when I am just starting out?
All these are great questions and made me think of the phase "act as if".
Now, of course I am not suggesting that she would have the same resources as say Coca Cola. But everything a Coca Cola brand manager does applies to even the smallest brands. It’s simply a matter of translating the scale.
- Branding is still important for a small brand. First of all, a small brand still has aspirations to one day be a big brand. Therefore, there is no better time than now to start building the brand. Also, brand implies a brand promise. Brand implies a certain guarantee of quality. You put your stamp on it. You stand behind it. Check out this packaging from King Kava. You may not know who Ben or Nick is. But somehow, you know they wouldn’t have put their names on it if they didn’t think they are giving you an amazing product that you will love. You may not put your personal name on it, but brand name provide that same reassurance. Consumers know that you wouldn’t risk tarnishing your brand by putting it on an inferior product.
- As for mass advertising, that’s a trickier question. Now of course I am not suggesting everyone should be buying TV spots. That is incredibly expensive. But the truth is you have to somehow generate consumer demand. Mass advertising works because you never know where you will find your next consumer. You never know when he/she will be in the market for your product. That’s why you need to reach broadly in order to uncover your next consumer. But resource constraint is a factor. There are a few work-arounds. First, define your target market. Be as specific as possible. Don’t worry about you want to appeal to everyone because you want everyone to buy your product. Bottom line is you can’t afford to effectively market to everyone anyway. So, if you can very specifically define your target, then you may know where he/she may be found. Maybe you know he/she most likely read this magazine – then an ad there may make sense. Maybe you know that he/she world very likely attend this event – then can you hand out samples there? Maybe you know that he/she would read this blog – can you reach out to that blogger for a product review? All of these initiatives fall under the umbrella of building brand awareness. It is always a good idea to build in a way to measure, so maybe consider a unique promo code so you can track effectiveness of your tactics and start to understand how brand awareness may affect your bottom line. However, know that not everyone who eventually make a purchase would use the promo code (because they may not have it with them at the time), but you can still have a good sense of success.
- Finally, let’s talk about brand loyalty. Yes, you may not have loyal consumers yet. But you would like to have them, right? So, why not start cultivating that loyalty today. Social media has created a new world of reaching your consumers. Long gone are the days when you don’t know what happens after you put your products on a store shelf. Of course, major retailers have a lot is data on their shoppers and you could ask them to share that data with you. But even without that, you can proactively build a direct link with your consumers. Include an invitation to join your Facebook page for exclusive deals, for example. Small businesses nowadays are usually very sophisticated in identifying a market niche. This means small brands are typically tapping into a consumer segment that is incredibly passionate. This may be on the topic of being green. This may be on the topic of being gluten free. The fact is they are already a community and if your brand offers them a forum to connect with each other, they will appreciate it. And you now have a forum to reach and talk to them directly, which is the first step toward cultivating loyalty.
So, no matter how small your revenue may be today. Think like a big brand, and it’ll lead you to big brand successes.
I’m a big foodie (as you might have gathered in my bio). Recently, I had the opportunity to have an insider’s look at one of the most successful food truck businesses in NYC.Wafels & Dinges, founded by Thomas DeGeest, was one of the first gourmet food trucks in NYC. Today, they operate a fleet of trucks / carts and about to open a brick-and-mortar cafe. They have fans all over the City, around the country, and around the world. It’s evident that the secrets that made them successful are transferable to a variety of businesses.
What’s the most difficult part of operating a food truck business?
Picking your spot, which is strategically the hardest. Recently, a lot of new food trucks just go wherever others are at. You can’t follow. You have to develop your own territory. We have a knack of finding untapped neighborhoods. For example: Park slope. We used to be the only one there, but by now a fair number of other trucks have followed
Lesson: To be successful, you have to develop your market and be the first to market in order to realize the full potential of that market. Don’t be a follower. Followers will never have the opportunity to enjoy 100% of market share. At the same time, you cannot rest on your laurels if you are the leader. Others will ultimately follow and try to take share from you. So, you always have to be developing new markets and continuously driving growth.
Your twitter stream is hilarious. Who does your twitter?
Joe. He’s been with the company since the beginning. He really started responding to twitter on the train on the way home. It’s between Joe and Thomas and others who were with the company since the beginning that really developed the voice of the company.
Lesson: It’s been said, but it’s worth saying again: an intern cannot handle your social media. Your social media channels are one of the most visible venues of customer interactions nowadays. This is the voice and brand of your company – leave it to someone who knows your voice and brand.
What keeps you apart from every other food truck out there?
So many restaurant franchises or multi-unit companies choose to dumb down their process for the sake of repeatability and scaleability. The idea is anyone can come in and be trained immediately. We do not dump down our products and our process. You can’t dump down the product and keep its soul. It takes up to a year and a half for our waffeleurs to be fully trained to take on a complex truck shift solo. We are now opening our first cafe. It’s 1200 sq ft. It’s quite big actually. But if we were going to do it, we wanted to do it right.
Lesson: To sustain success, you would want to have a perfect product always, without compromise. You need to have pride and passion for what you are putting out in the marketplace. Also, since everyone in your operation in some way influences your product and your brand, you need to ensure that everyone in your organization shares that same passion.
About Wafels & Dinges: Founded by Thomas DeGeest in 2007, Wafels & Dinges’ mission is to bring authentic Belgium waffles to the United States. Today, Wafels & Dinges operates a fleet of trucks and carts canvassing New York City. In addition, they operate a catering business, and are about to open a café in East Village. Wafels & Dinges has been awarded the Vendy Award, the Tablespoon Munchies Food Award, and has been rated as #1 Mobile Vendor by Zagat.