How a marketing mindset can help small restaurants fight back in a post-COVID world

Jake Nicol 26th May 2020
4 min
4 min

When bars and restaurants finally reopen, it’s reasonable to expect a pretty apocalyptic level of footfall basically everywhere. But what happens after that honeymoon period? 

Small and independent restaurants will struggle to sustain this level of interest, as larger businesses throw money at the problem and focus on bringing punters in at any cost. Our culinary Davids need a hell of a strategy to see off the corporate Goliaths. 

Marketing might just be that strategy. 

Marketing is all about differentiation 

Most people know that they can eat good food at home for less money than they spend at a fast food joint; the reason they bother to go out is the experience restaurants offer. 

Some customers want to feel sophisticated and refined; others want a safe place where they can relax and see their mates. Regardless of the specifics, successful restaurants of the future will have to offer something strikingly different to draw people away from their homes. 

If people are looking for a safe, consistent experience, small restaurants will never be able to compete; a majority of consumers are more likely to frequent a McDonald’s abroad rather than at home, in large part because they know exactly what they’re getting when they go under the golden arches. 

Instead, you need to focus on carving out a clear niche and owning it. 

In a sense, marketing is another form of efficiency: your goal is to get more out of less, by making your assets more valuable and making your communications more effective. But it requires a down payment of time and creative effort. 

Everything from your décor and branding to the menu and service style is up for grabs here: the limit is only your imagination. Could you become the place for first dates? Is there an unusual way you could serve food? Might your menu be more customisable?

The Coronavirus is, in some senses, a kind of culling: businesses which don’t offer anything clearly valuable and differentiated will likely not survive. And therefore actively differentiating what you do is an essential step in securing your restaurant’s future. 

You need to integrate yourself into people’s online lives

A big part of a successful marketing approach involves reaching people – and the best way to reach people today is online. This is not only effective in the longer term, but will be a useful way of keeping your business in people’s minds while you can’t actually be trading. 

You need to be at the top of people’s minds when they’re deciding where to eat; you need to feel familiar and intimate, so that they actively want to patronise your restaurant. 

The facts bear this out: having an up-to-date website and appearing on review sites will attract the attention of 40% of consumers; 40% of customers want to hear from a restaurant once a month or more; and 84% of customers come back if a restaurant responds directly to their feedback.

So restaurants that put extra effort into an effective, relatable and above all active internet presence will be rewarded in the future. 

Understanding your customers is everything

A large part of this approach boils down to a simple task: understand your customer at all costs. Whatever differentiation you build into your aesthetic, your menu and your communication will be nothing without a clear understanding of who it is you’re trying to appeal to.  

It’s impossible to know what kinds of people will be most likely to visit restaurants in the future – everything from disposable income to social status could play a role, but precisely how it’s impossible to say. 

Doing demographic and psychographic research will help you make sense of the people who are actually bothering to go to restaurants, and that in turn will help you more effectively market to them.  

Successful restaurants of the future will need to be able to reliably serve a specific audience of regulars in order to gain the stability they need to weather uncertainty and debt. 

And marketing might just be the way they learn how to do that. 

Here are three ways you can get started today:

Develop your online presence

Now is the perfect time to be working on improving your website and social media presence. Why not offer cooking and food prep advice on Instagram? Why not offer lockdown meal inspiration? 

Learn about your market

While you’re reaching out and connecting online, you can be learning about how customers respond to you and how better to engage with them. How do they communicate? Which platforms do they prefer?

Strategise and be creative

Marketing is an inherently creative, open playing field. So now is a great opportunity to be watching the competition and brainstorming as much as possible, so that you have as many great ideas and strategic insights as possible when the time comes to act. 

You’re reading an excerpt from our latest white paper: The New Normal: Three Futures for Small Restaurants After COVID-19If you’d like to read more, please click here to download the full paper!