Foodservice Brand Marketing from Farm to Table
When you think about Foodservice Brand Marketing, you may not think it’s terribly important from the outset. Especially when you consider all the restaurant operators trying to keep your foodservice brand marketing away from their customers.We have worked in the foodservice industry for more than three decades. We can tell you that foodservice brand marketing is essential to having long term success in the foodservice business.
If you were going to design the perfect way to sell food away from home, you would not come up with this process. It’s too complicated, for one thing. And for another there are too many hands out waiting to skim a little something off the top of your profits. From the farm to the table and into consumers mouths, there are dozens of people who all have to get paid. Over the years, we have helped a lot of foodservice companies make a lot of money in this very imperfect system.
How Foodservice Marketing is Different
Unlike a consumer brand, foodservice brand marketing needs to reach consumers indirectly. It also needs to mean something to every point along the way. If you are a private label company, your brand is being sold through a distributor, retailer or chain restaurant. And while your actual name may never come up along the way, you are still responsible for the foodservice brand marketing needed to get the product to sell.
Sadly, most private label companies are not at all good at foodservice brand marketing. Worse yet, neither are foodservice distributors or retailers. And restaurant chains are not at all interested in most of the details in their foodservice brand marketing. Instead, they are more interested in their own sales. As an example Jimmy John’s is not a famous sandwich shop because of the BBQ chips they sell. They are more interested in the sandwich, the delivery, the cute slogans and making you ask for paper napkins.
Let’s Walk through the Foodservice System
My company has represented a large number of brands in foodservice. With each one we have always promoted selling based on the foodservice brand promise: you know our products will always be of the finest quality. Products are always consistent and they can be trusted. Plus, your customers are worth the few pennies extra you have to pay for that consistency. Brand reputations matter, even in foodservice brand marketing. It is that simple.
We also recommend building an offering and a sales position that will attract restaurant operators and keep them asking for the brand by name. This can be done with promotions, Foodservice Rewards®, exclusivity, guerilla marketing at the street level and better sales teams. But never, under any circumstances abandon your brand.
It is also essential at this level to have a great relationship with the end user. This is difficult for most food manufacturing companies because foodservice distributors hord this information. They keep it under lock and key with anyone who sees their customer list sworn to secrecy. This is why we recommend offering Foodservice Rewards. This is a program that offers you access to restaurant operators. Further, it gives you the chance to market directly to them and bypass the distributor.
Private Label Manufacturing.
When we work with private label companies, the first thing we try to impress on them is they are not ‘label’ companies. Instead, they are private foodservice brand manufacturers. As a point of difference, this means to the industry that you are going to take responsibility for developing the brand. It also means maintaining a level of trust equal to or better than any other foodservice brand marketing.
Rather than making your retail brand fit into foodservice, you are making a foodservice brand specifically for that industry. It is a foodservice brand marketing promise that you will create and nurture the brand. You are now the foodservice brand marketer. From the manufacturer through the distributor, the restaurant operator and all the way to the consumer.
Pitching a new product requires a foodservice brand marketing plan, neatly laid out with potential graphics and a sales approach. Keep in mind, distributors are not great at selling new items. In fact, they are not good at selling anything. They generally take orders and have great relationships with their customers. This is because distributor sales representatives are very cautious about offering anything to their best customers that might upset them. They would prefer to be asked for something by a restaurant operator and then be a hero and get it for them. So your foodservice brand marketing has got to be set up correctly. To do this, you must pull through the system. Foodservice brand marketing that is developed correctly will appeal to restaurant operators who will see its value immediately and ask for it.
We have worked with hundreds of foodservice distributors over the years and have never seen anything that could be called foodservice brand marketing. They private label, and then swap out branded products. They generally do not put energy behind foodservice brand marketing. There are a lot of theories as to why this is. In my experience, they simply do not spend the time or money on developing foodservice brand marketing. Their perception is foodservice brand marketing will never see the light of day.
This is and always has been a mistake on their part. Of course, swapping out brands for private label products helps them secure the customer in the short term. But after doing countless research studies on foodservice brand marketing and the impact of product fluctuations on the restaurant industry, I know first hand how dangerous this is. Especially to independent restaurant operators. Consumers do not want a restaurant product to change. In every focus group we have ever conducted, consumers will say they would prefer to pay a higher price for a product than to have it be different to save money. Consumers are very sensitive to product changes.
Consumers do not want a restaurant product to change.
We have developed foodservice brand marketing programs for a number of foodservice distributors over the years. In most situations they have fumbled the product at the goal line. Even when we start correctly and build a nice brand position. When the foodservice marketing brand depends on foodservice distributors they seldom get behind the product. Or worse yet have a foodservice distributor sales director or vice president decide they know better and only offer the product to a select few customers. That or customers they think they need some leverage with because they might lose the business all together.
Good foodservice brand marketing needs to work through the foodservice distributor, but not depend on them. It’s best to do as much as you can to leverage the distributor sales representative. If you can make the case with the restaurant operator, the restaurant will order the product and resist the distributor swap.
A Word About Brokers.
After working with foodservice brokers over the years, they can be a real benefit if. But only if you are one of their top three or four clients. In other words, if you pay them a lot of money, you get a lot of service. If not, you simply don’t get a lot of attention. If you are a small client in a foodservice brokerage, the best you can hope for is one account executive part time making calls on your behalf.
When I was working with Anchor Food Products before they sold to McCain, we would often put a lot of pressure on our brokers to ‘drag a bag’ with our products. Most often this was at the expense of smaller clients within the brokerage. In some instances, if our products were aligned with the same broker that had Tyson foods as an example, we might even move our brands to another broker to get more attention.
If you decide to use brokers, pay close attention to their client lineup. Do your best to be as high at the top of their list as you can. And be prepared to spend a lot of time in each market training them to be able to sell your foodservice brand marketing. This part is essential. Your message needs to go through the broker to the restaurant operator correctly. Otherwise the restaurant operator may not understand the value of your foodservice brand marketing.
Most of the profits from the food industry come from independent restaurant operators. This is because they simply do not have the buying power to demand a lower price. While independent restaurant operators should be worshiped for their contribution to the business, they are not. Distributors will swap out products causing mission drift. And they get advice from multiple, often conflicting sources. This causes confusion for the restaurant operator.
From the food manufacturer standpoint, this can be a very lucrative source of business. But it is very difficult to get to. Most restaurant operators do not make decisions quickly. They are pulled in a number of directions and have very little understanding of foodservice brand marketing. We have given presentations at the National Restaurant Show, the Western Restaurant Show, countless distributor food shows as well as working with literally thousands of restaurant operators over the years. And when we start to talk about foodservice brand marketing, we lose their interest. Even though their brand is the most important part of their business.
On the upside, well run independent restaurant operators have a very thorough understanding of their guests. They fuss over them, talk to them and know what they like and don’t like. Your foodservice marketing brand and program needs to offer support in the form of products that will make them money. Offer consistency they can depend on. And provide marketing materials that will put butts in seats. Successful foodservice brand marketing is about thinking your offering through the restaurant to the consumer and getting the consumer to buy something over and over again.
Your foodservice brand marketing will need to be adjusted to partner with the restaurant you want to work with. It is important to offer something for the chain restaurant that they can present as their own. Exclusivity is king. Most chain restaurants will want to be able to say they are the only restaurant operator who has a particular item.
To be successful, you will need to either invent or reinvent a category for the restaurant customer. Restaurant chains are typically the most sophisticated foodservice brand marketers of the foodservice industry. So your approach will need to be well researched, perfectly positioned and profitable for them. Further, make sure you do not offer something that will pull sales from an item they are proud of or that is already branded.
That happened once with a client we were representing. Wells’ Dairy Blue Bunny had developed a fried ice cream product for Outback Steakhouse. The dessert would ‘blossom’ into petals when it was plated. It was a very cool product and well designed. However, Outback was not impressed because they were sure the dessert would pull attraction from their bloomin onion. Needless to say, we were sent packing and didn’t get a sale.
Foodservice Brand Marketing. Thanks for taking this tour through foodservice brand marketing with us. If you are looking for help growing your foodservice brand marketing at any point in the process, contact us here.
M+K Laux dba HotOperator is a farm to table marketing consulting firm. Mark and Kelly are a marketing team and managing partners of HotOperator. They have been working in the food business since 1989. Either can be contacted through the HotOperator website, or by calling 800-316-3198. or contact Laux here.