Restaurants Get Creative with #Experiential Marketing

July 11, 2018

Goodbye paid advertising; hello custom hashtag.

Although restaurants have long used events to attract and retain customers, experiential marketing lets restaurants deliver unique, exciting and constantly-changing brand experiences.

By organizing special events and making them readily “share”-able for social media, restaurants are reaching broader, more diverse audiences.

Make Customers Part of Your Marketing Team

Experiential marketing appeals to a rather new customer demand: something exclusive to share on social media. Customers want to post fresh and interesting experiences on their Instagram, Facebook, Twitter or other social media accounts.

In exchange, customers provide free peer-to-peer advertising — organic, effective marketing that can’t be bought. What’s more powerful than seeing an Instagram picture of your coolest friend at the hottest new restaurant in town? Now, it’s personal.

Forward-thinking restaurant owners capitalize on this trend with ideas that cater specifically to peer-to-peer social media. Beantown-based Boston Chops recently unveiled a $10,000 “Instagram table” that takes this to a whole new level with custom furniture and lighting.

“Social media is a big part of the dining scene today,” explains owner Chris Coombs. “It is a great marketing tool for people to see our food, décor and cocktails and hopefully entice them to check it out for themselves.”

Rule #1: Be Interesting

The more unexpected, unique, or ephemeral the experience, the more likely a customer will share it on social media. You can’t overestimate the motivational power of FOMO (fear of missing out).

The Waffle House catering team in Atlanta has made its mark with a Waffle House food truck that can be rented for private celebrations like weddings, parties, and corporate events. The food truck delivers an on-brand mobile dining experience, complete with the franchise’s iconic sign and special awning,

Combined with special events where people are more likely to be posting on social media, Waffle House creates a powerfully shareable experience.

Customers Crave an Exclusive Experience

While food and customer service remain important to diners, many have started to value a third standard: exclusivity.

The line between food and entertainment budgets has started to blur as customers search out more exclusive dining experiences. The rise of restaurant “pop-ups” — dining concepts that are as short-lived as they are hard to define — speaks to this new shift toward experiential dining.

Pop-ups include temporary restaurants, “dining concepts,” and chef showcases that take over a space for a limited time — from one evening to an entire season. The temporality creates a sense of urgency and exclusivity.

Writer Ryan Bradley recently explored the rise of pop-ups for GQ. “After a month of eating at pop-ups, I figured out only one conclusive thing about them: They are not so much about the food as they are about all the stuff around the food—how we eat, not what we’re eating.”

Bradley offers this explanation for the emerging popularity of pop-ups: “As attention spans shortened and experiences became the new status symbols, disappearing restaurants gained more cultural capital than their stodgily static alternatives.”

Kate Sawyer, content marketing manager for event ticketing and management website EventBrite, recently told the Orlando Sentinel,  “[Diners] are really looking for that one-of-a-kind experience.”

A survey conducted by Eventbrite found that pop-up dining experiences “were the fastest growing trend within its platform.”

Despite being most associated with young, trendy restaurants, even established franchises like Chick-fil-A use short-lived pop-ups for marketing. Last fall, during the annual UGA vs. Auburn football game, Chick-fil-A opened up a “Rivalry Restaurant” pop-up for fans. The pop-up was divided in half for the rival fan groups. The wildly popular one-day restaurant offered free food, entertainment, and a screening of the game.

Build Community Around a Regular Event

Recurring events, from comedy open mics to educational cooking demos, provide restaurants with an opportunity to connect with customers beyond the dine-in experience. Just make sure events align with your customers’ interests and the ethos of your brand.

“In a market the size of Atlanta, it’s pretty tough for a restaurant to afford traditional media in any format,” says Brooks Cloud, managing partner of 10 Apart Hospitality in Atlanta, which owns The Mercury, The Pinewood, and Deep End. “What we try to do is create a social environment that people want to be a part of.”

Some customers may be interested in a weekly trivia night because they want to spend time with a group of friends. Others may want to learn more about a specialty topic (wines of Tuscany) and would show up for educational classes or demos (cooking with truffles).

“It’s tough to move the needle,” Cloud admits. “What works best for us is recurring things centered around a price point or something special in a niche market”. He points to The Mercury’s weekend brunch buffet, one of the few at an in-town restaurant, and regular special promotions at The Pinewood that bring people through the door.

Cloud also spoke about the necessity of engaging with customers on social media. “You need to manage the technology, your social channels, because customers expect us to be everywhere they are.”

10 Apart Hospitality makes sure to respond to customer feedback and suggestions, he says, because “formatting experiences to the ever-evolving dining public is required”.

Collaborate With Complementary Businesses

Collaborative events bring two loyal audience bases to the same event and encourage cross-pollination. Strategic partnerships with breweries, local growers and even plateware designers provide an opportunity to grow and combine networks.

Hattie B’s, a “Hot Chicken” restaurant originally from Nashville, used this strategy to gain public attention before its June 2018 Atlanta opening. Hattie B’s hosted pop-ups and collaborative dinners with Fox Bros Bar-B-Q and Sweetwater Brewery, both businesses that had similar but distinct customer bases.

Customers were able to get a taste of the upcoming restaurant, and there was a flurry of attention on social media. This sneak-peek collaboration gave customers the chance to experience an exclusive preview, and it allowed Hattie B’s to build a following before it even opened its doors.

A word of caution: Restaurant owners seeking partnerships with other businesses should make the partnership terms clear. Both parties will need to agree on who oversees the venue, the promotions, the finances, and other critical details.

How to Get Started

As you explore opportunities for experiential marketing, ask yourself:

  • How will you encourage customers to share their experiences? Think of a hashtag and provide branded selfie props. Let customers take pictures in front of a photo-worthy backdrop. Re-post the best customer pictures.
  • What type of experiential event fits your business? Can your business expand to include special one-time events, or would your customers prefer regular happenings with loyal followings? Is there a complementary business that might partner for a mutually-beneficial event?
  • What company strengths can you take advantage of for a special event? Do you have multiple locations, or a single, high-profile venue? Do you have many diverse relationships in associated industries that you can call upon for collaborations? Do you have a flexible kitchen or a prime location for leveraging a festival or holiday?
  • Does your clientele really want to engage more on social media? Some clientele may not want to mix social media with their dining experience. As social media grows, so do sensitivities about boundaries and privacy. Will an emphasis on social media enhance or offend your loyal customers?

To learn more about restaurant growth strategies and opportunities, contact

Tommy Lee, the partner-in-charge of Aprio’s Retail, Franchise & Hospitality Group.