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Top 10 Tips for Marketing a Restaurant in a Downturn Economy

Top 10 Tips for Marketing a Restaurant in a Downturn Economy

Do not stop marketing because of the bad economy. In fact, your marketing strategies should not be much different than they were before. The only difference is a new environmental factor: a bad economy. Here are the best ways to improve or maintain profits during hard times:

1. Do not panic.

During the 1930s, the restaurant and entertainment industries continued to flourish, withstanding the Great Depression.1 Furthermore, despite the economic downturn, restaurant sales still increased in 2008.2 Even though there is less spending money to go around in a downturn, people will continue to go to restaurants. They will, however, be more selective about when and where they eat out. To be sure that you survive, you need to continue focusing on growth, instead of just planning to weather the storm, which is what most of your competitors will be doing.

2. Focus on low- or no-cost marketing.

The large majority of marketing strategies are virtually free to implement. Put extra focus on low- or no-cost marketing strategies like up-selling, frequency programs, public relations, personal selling and local store marketing.

3. Increase your advertising efforts.

If your sales are slowing down, you need to strengthen your advertising campaign, even though you may be tempted to cut costs. By upping or maintaining your advertising efforts, you will gain a greater portion of market influence as your competitors cut back on marketing to save money. Perform a marketing assessment to determine which advertising campaigns are working and which are not. Only spend on promotions that have a proven and measurable return on investment (ROI). » Learn More

4. Revamp your menu.

Discontinue menu items that do not sell, as well as menu items with low profit margins. Put your most profitable items in a prominent place on the menu. Customers are feeling the bad economy, too, so make sure you use subtlety when adjusting pricing. You can try raising your menu prices to just below the next dollar level (e.g. raising the price from $5.50 to $5.95) or compensating for higher costs by reducing the portion size and thereby the food costs of a menu item. » Learn More

5. Continue your branding tactics.

In a weak economy, it is essential that you continue creating brand awareness and brand loyalty. Make sure the designs of your marketing materials, both inside and outside the restaurant, are consistent with your brands’ design concept. Be sure that your menu and all your advertising materials create a consistent message about what customers should expect from your restaurant.
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6. Offer customers a solution.

Your customers probably have a lot on their minds. If you present your restaurant’s dining experience as a solution to their problems, you can use the downturn to your advantage. In your marketing messages, emphasize your excellent value, focus on the concept of “escape,” and offer a special treat, like a free dessert or appetizer, that frugal customers would not otherwise indulge in.

7. Help others who struggle.

If you can show that your restaurant is doing everything in its power to help out the community during a tough time, your customers will thank you both now and in the future. In fact, 52% of adults say they are more likely to patronize a restaurant that supports charities and helps the local community.3 You can get personally involved in charity work, or you can use your restaurant to host fundraisers or sponsor community organizations. The more you give to your community, the more your community will give back.

8. Develop a unique edge.

There is nothing wrong with making cutting edge changes in a bad economy. Go green, host events, hire a great new chef, add unique new menu items, or develop and strengthen any other unique selling points you might already have.

9. Avoid discounting.

Ultimately, discounting might hurt your profits more than it helps them, since customers will perceive a lower value and will be unlikely to pay full price in the future. Instead of discounting, try to come up with clever ways to add value to your product. For example, you could offer free coffee to customers who order dessert, or offer another item that is low-cost for you but still improves the customer experience.

10. Focus on repeat business.

Think of your customers as people, not as moneybags. In a bad economy, stressed customers feel the need for escape and relaxation more than ever. Turning existing customers into loyal visitors is more cost-effective than acquiring new ones. Retain your customers by making them feel extra special and offering rewards for repeat business. » Learn More


1 Jim Heimann, May I Take Your Order: American Menu Design 1920-1960 (Chronical Books, 1998).
2 National Restaurant Association, 2009 Restaurant Industry Forecast <www.restaurant.org> (accessed January 7, 2009).
3 “Restaurant Industry – Facts at a Glance,” National Restaurant Association <http://www.restaurant.org/research/ind_glance.cfm> (accessed January 27, 2009).

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