5 lessons in marketing from the MEG meeting

The spring conference of the NRA’s Marketing Executives Group took attendees back to school. The three-day marketing-focused preamble to the NRA Show treated the audience of restaurant marketing makers to lessons on creating “zombie loyalists,” a pop quiz on menu labeling rules and a pep rally from former NBA player and motivational speaker Walter Bond. Here are some takeaways jotted down in our notebook:

1. Don’t sweat the copycats

When other restaurants try to knock off your idea, “you’ve just gotta focus on what you’re doing in your [own] business,” said Chris Doody, CEO of Piada Italian Street Food, one of MEG’s 2015 Buzzed-About Brands.

Indeed, the eyes of the industry have been on the Columbus, Ohio-based upscale fast casual known for its Italian flatbread sandwich wraps, but Doody is not concerned. “It’s bigger than me. It’s how well we execute, it’s the whole package,” he said. “Don’t worry about that because you can’t control it.”

2. Being a top marketer isn’t just about knowing marketing

Asked how restaurant marketers can work better with the CEOs and COOs of their organizations, Doody said it’s more important to know the operations. “Understand what it really takes to run a restaurant.” The more you know the business, the more effective you’ll be.

Piada’s marketing director Matt Eisenacher, for example, didn’t just develop the messaging for the brand’s catering initiative, he built the entire program, Doody said, from the packaging to the whole strategy.

3. Internal marketing matters

The importance of marketing to your employees as well as consumers was a point raised by several speakers. Tim McEnery, CEO of Cooper’s Hawk, who shared the stage with Doody during the Buzzed-About Brands panel said this: “It wasn’t until five years ago that I woke up to how important having an incredible culture really is.”

When Cooper’s Hawk went from making its chicken stock in-house to outsourcing it to a supplier, McEnery thought much about how he would tell the staff. The motivation for the switch was sound—the scratch-made stock was hit or miss; as the concept grew and consistency across stores became important, it was able to work with a supplier to execute the proprietary recipe. But, wanting to be sure the move wasn’t perceived as selling out, “it took us eight months to figure out how we were going to communicate that to our staff,” he said. “We spent a long time thinking about the ‘why.’”

4. Menu labeling is a work in progress

A session led by the NRA’s vice president of industry affairs and food policy, Joan McGlockton, shined light on the overwhelming amount of confusion that remains over the government’s menu labeling rules—less than seven months out from the Dec. 1 compliance date.

The room was riveted as McGlockton walked through three key sticking points of the rules: which establishments are covered (where it gets tricky is defining what places sell “restaurant-type food”), which foods need to be labeled and what qualifies as a menu or menu board (“The FDA is taking a far more expansive view,” she says; that includes “any writing from which a customer can make an ordering decision,” so mind your direct mailers, marketers).

After her 45-minute talk, the hands shot up around the room with at least a dozen questions on everything from the franchisor’s responsibility to labeling requirements for sliced sandwiches delivered off-site in a catering box. The takeaway: stay tuned to the NRA and FDA websites for more clarification on the rules in the coming days and weeks.

5. Know who you are as a brand

“Social media is a humanizing medium,” said Felicia Stingone, brand marketing consultant and former head of marketing for Danny Meyer’s Union Square Hospitality Group.

It’s not enough to just “do” social media. “You have to know who you are because that comes out in social media—or it doesn’t, and that could end up hurting more than helping.”

Plus a few more …

Here are few more lessons, culled from tweets during the event:

• @krazyhuhn tweets: @petershankman on brevity: “You have 2.7 seconds to reach a new customer Be a better communicator.” #SpringMEG2015

• @ryaninthecity tweets: “Stop chasing likes and make your brand more likeable.” -@petershankman #SpringMEG2015

• @JeffreyJKingman tweets: “We need rockstars, not lip-synchers.” Culture That Rocks @KnightSpeaker #SpringMEG2015 #NRAShow2015


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