Protecting the Brand or (Reputation)
Prior to 1965, it would have been almost impossible to use the term “brand” as we presently know it when discussing multi-unit food-service companies. First of all, there weren’t that many, and for the most part they were regional—not so today.
Today we not only have national restaurant brands but international ones as well. Whether it’s chicken, burgers , hot dogs or fine dining, American food-service brands are thriving throughout most of the world. This has placed a heavy burden on the manner in which these companies operate, not only here in the United States but in adhering to foreign standards as well. One mistake and the social media will have it traveling around the globe faster that the speed of light. This has created a “walking on eggshells” environment in many of the top brand executive suites and has given birth to a “protect the brand” mentality. Some have not been totally successful in doing so as you will see.
In the last three or four years, there have been a number of blips made by some major brands. For example: A major player in the casual dining area somehow let leak a memo that it was going to raise prices and shave portions! Needless to say, it not only was reported in the general press but was the hit of the day on a number of social media websites. The company received 30,000 e-mails of protest. It didn’t take more than a week before the company apologized and said that they were dropping that unfortunate policy. This may be the first recorded incident whereby a company was saved because of the Internet. The company responded to every e-mail it received and apologize and, I believe, offered some kind of discount to the recipient. The brand was really hurt, but I’m happy to report is surviving.
This incident is also a dramatic example of how the Internet has changed the consumer’s ability to let the managers of major brands know when they are unhappy with them. No more struggling to find the company’s address, sitting and drafting a long letter, putting it in an envelope and then buying a stamp. Now all you have to do is say what you feel, hit the Spell Check, and then, with great gusto, hit the Send key. Done!
More recently two major brands, one a large casual dining chain and the other an equally large QSR specialty operation, went public with their concerns as they relate to the Affordable Care Act, more commonly known as Obamacare. It seemed that both were trying to alert their patrons that there would be changes in staffing and even some staff cutting. It did not go well with consumers. While many of the changes that the companies said might have to be made, why make them public? It seemed to many, including this writer, that it is not really any of the public’s business. To suggest that service may suffer is an invitation for your base to go elsewhere. While they, too, may have to do the same thing, they’re not announcing it to the public.
One company admitted that it did receive blow back because of its response to the new heath care law and admitted it contributed to a steep decline in its net profit for the last quarter.
Please note that in the three incidents that I have used as examples of hurting the brand, these were major organizations; however, remember that brand can also be considered a euphemism for reputation. While you may be an independent operator, you too have to protect your good name (reputation) even if you don’t have hundreds of locations.
As you well know, many of today’s social issues have or will have, if they become law, an impact on your business—no smoking, menu posting, eliminating trans fats, increasing the minimum wage, the obesity issue and how food service companies are dealing with it, the banning of certain size soft drinks, the health department’s grading of inspections, and the list goes on and on. Should the media contact you for your thoughts on any of these issues, be very careful what you say and how you say it; remember, in many instances the public supports these initiatives and you run the risk of alienating them if you are vigorous in opposing them. Remember, you will not have a chance to edit your remarks. Always have the person asking the questions read back your answers.
I have a friend who is considered one of the best in the public relations business; he earned this reputation because of his ability to keep many of his clients’ names OUT of the press. It’s a shame he’s not representing Phil Mickelson.
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About the Author
You might say that Fred Sampson was born with food service in his DNA, working at age 12 in his family restaurant in Philadelphia after school and on week-ends, followed by a career that included director of feeding at Temple University’s main campus in Philadelphia, vice president of a regional casual dining chain and finally as President and CEO of the New York State Restaurant Association for 30 years. He is still active as a consultant and writer All of this has enriched his knowledge and love for the industry. He has often said, “I have never considered myself an ‘expert’ on the industry but rather a qualified observer and I write from that perspective.”
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