October 1, 2017 |

Is Your Concept Outdated?

By David La Martina

When, why and how to update your brand

Checkered tablecloths and Chianti-bottled candles have long been the stereotype of Italian restaurants, and some concepts still haven’t left the 1980s. While traditional décor, old-fashioned menus and familiar food still fly in some venues, times –– and customers –– are always changing.

Most pizzerias must continually revamp to stay relevant, adjusting food, atmosphere and marketing to appeal to customers new and old. From industry experts and long-time restaurateurs, here are a few considerations for rebranding your own store.

• Time for a change. How do you know it’s time to switch things up? “If you’re underperforming, it’s probably time to rebrand,” says Carl Howard, CEO of Lexington, Kentucky-based Fazoli’s. “Look at same-store sales and traffic, year over year, compared to your peer group.” The numbers don’t lie, and whether you’re running a franchise or independent shop, declining sales go hand-in-hand with a stale brand.

What about all the other factors that influence sales? “After you go down the checklist of location, demographic, employees and management, the only thing that’s really left is your branding and messaging,” says Rhonda Sciortino, industry consultant and creator of the Your Real Success program.

Of course, location and demographic themselves could be driving your need for a rebrand. “As your target market ages out, you have to appeal to younger people and new trends,” says Scott Anthony, International Pizza Expo speaker and owner of Punxsy Pizza in Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania. Without frequent updates, even well-established pizzerias will eventually see sales decline as their original customers age, move and pass on.

So how do you know if it’s time to refresh or overhaul? Gradual change is part and parcel of running a successful business, but few shops need major overhauls. “I’m not a fan of a big changes because you don’t want to alienate your existing customers or let them think your business is being taken over,” says Anthony. Typically, the best changes are less disruptive: updated menus, redesigned dining rooms and new messaging, not necessarily done at the same time.

If your store is moving in a new direction –– becoming more sports-focused or family-oriented, for instance –– “then you might just want to change your unique selling proposition to let customers know your mindset is shifting as theirs is,” Anthony adds.

Still, an overhaul is occasionally in order, particularly when a shop’s location and concept don’t align. “If a restaurant is really struggling, they have to decide whether the location is worthy, and whether it will maintain a surge of business if they invest in the remodel,” says Ron Lieberman, owner of PizzaRev La Habra and CEO of Design Development.

Ultimately, though, the degree of change necessary depends on the severity of underperformance. Shops with mostly successful track records need small, targeted changes, while restaurants that have floundered from the get-go need completely new concepts (or locations).

Which parts of your operation should change, and which should stay the same? To answer both questions, turn to your customers. “Nowadays it’s easier than ever to do electronic surveys,” says Sciortino. “From that data you can determine what people love about your brand and what brings them back.

Howard agrees, noting the importance of learning what former customers like about your competition. “You really have to find out why guests are leaving, where they’re going and why they’re going there,” he says. Food quality, service, price, atmosphere and more — You won’t know what’s really responsible for your successes and failures until you generate some data.

Of course, polling customers won’t work if you’re not willing to hear their answers. “You have to extract the emotion out of the process and act on the information you get,” says Sciortino. “If you’re a mom and pop pizzeria that’s still doing what worked in 1979, you’re going to have to make some changes.”

When it comes to specifics, many shops would do well to follow recent trends. “There’s been a surge in the last 10 to 15 years, and we’re seeing a new, Millennial-oriented look,” says Lieberman. “Young folks, the majority of people spending money in restaurants, want something more casual and laid back.” Overall, Gen Y favors simple, industrial interior designs and menus that focus on food quality, health and a lack of artificial ingredients.

Still, not every shop needs to appeal to a younger crowd or adopt recent trends. “Every mom and pop shop that’s been around for a while is really an expert on their neighborhood, and they should capitalize on that,” says Sciortino. If a long-standing business can play on their history, it can be a popular gathering spot for customers young and old, regardless of –– perhaps even because of –– its deviation from what’s in vogue.

Likewise, any shop’s customer base is the people living within a few miles, and that demographic will largely dictate the necessary changes. If young people are replacing older generations, then significant changes may be in store. “If older folks are moving in, on the other hand, you’ll need to be traditional, cozy and embracing,” says Lieberman.

No matter how you rebrand, communicating the changes to customers is key to realizing a return on your investment. Fortunately, telling your story is easier today than ever before. “The internet has leveled the playing field,” says Sciortino. “Now every shop can get a YouTube channel, Livestream and basically have their own reality show.”

Social media allows you to reach out to customers for next to nothing, and review sites let you learn exactly what people like about the changes you’ve put in place.

With so many modes of communication, however, consistency is even more important. “I definitely think rebranding is harder today than before, when you could just put up a banner that said ‘under new management,’ or ‘new and improved,’” says Anthony. “With all the research you can do today, you have to back up what you’re doing on every platform.”

From your online marketing to the look and feel of your store to the way you talk about your food, everything about your brand should convey the same message to your customers.

David LaMartina is a Kansas City-based freelance copywriter who specializes in the finance, food and health industries.