Two new marketing campaigns that draw on the timeless appeal of the American diner manifest the restaurant industry’s current malaise and perhaps provide its remedy as well.
McDonald’s American Vintage campaign in Japan celebrates the iconic diner.
The latest NPD Group/CREST data shows that the restaurant business—here and in several other countries—has hit the doldrums. In short, customer traffic isn’t increasing. “We’re seeing flat or declining Informal Eating Out markets and heightened competitive activity across all the geographies,” McDonald’s Corp. CEO Don Thompson told analysts last October. Just last week, Ruby Tuesday CEO James J. Buettgen summed up its current strategy this way: “Our management team, our team at the restaurant support center and our teams in the field are all aligned with one goal: improving traffic at Ruby Tuesday.”
Putting butts in seats is the inelegant but concise goal of every restaurant. And it isn’t easy because consumers aren’t just more careful with their spending; they’re also more careful with their affections. It takes a lot to bring them in the door and even more to win their hearts. New menu items aren’t doing it. Robotic, dispassionate social-media marketing (“Hi. What is your favorite item on our menu?”) doesn’t do it.
Time to evoke—if not emulate—the diner.
Denny’s new campaign positions it as “America’s diner.” A company release explains that it is “celebrating the 60-year-old brand’s authentic diner heritage and ‘come as you are’ atmosphere.” Says Francis Allen, Denny’s Chief Brand Officer, “Everything we are rolling out with this campaign aims to capture and replicate the warm, unique environment that can only be found at your local Denny’s diner, where the sounds from the kitchen and conversations between customers and friendly, spirited servers create that welcoming, familiar feeling that has our guests falling in love with Denny’s all over again.”
There are no fancy new menu items with the campaign. One commercial promotes $4 breakfast sandwiches with hash browns. Another touts burgers, pancakes and the joy of eating breakfast for dinner.
What define this vision of the diner are its casualness and its humanness. The diner is a democratic place where you needn’t dress up and where servers chat with customers and everyone is happy. It’s utopian and Rockwellian and might well be delusional, but it points to something that may be missing from restaurants. Honest human engagement.
We’ve all seen lousy food and service at a diner. Jack Nicholson had trouble getting what he wanted at a diner in 1970’s “Five Easy Pieces.” But that memorable exchange was at least between a customer and server, not between a diner and an iPad, order kiosk or tweet. The diner’s humanity is five pieces of its charm.
The American diner is so iconic that evoking it works around the world. McDonald’s “American Vintage” advertising campaign in Japan right now evidences that. The inauthenticity of the cooked-egg-topped Diner Double Beef burger being sold hardly matters because the pitch here is to Japanese consumers’ vision of the American diner. TV spots show kids dancing to “Johnny B. Goode” on a jukebox. These could be scenes from Barry Levinson’s 1982 film “Diner” or “Happy Days.”
There’s really nothing special in the build of the 1955 Burger that McDonald’s has marketed all over Europe. It’s a burger with grilled onion and steak sauce. But the name allows McDonald’s to market the burger with TV spots evoking the 1950s diner. Watch this TV commercial—with Phil Phillips’ 1959 hit “Sea of Love” as the background—that accompanied the 1955 Burger’s return to the UK last fall. McDonald’s is selling the diner not the burger, which is OK because that diner atmosphere is what consumers want from restaurants all levels, from quick-service up.
Listen to Buettgen explain to analysts the kind of place he wants Ruby Tuesday to become: “Our brand transformation strategy today is focused on reclaiming Ruby Tuesday’s heritage as a casual, affordable, energetic and approachable brand, on delivering what guests want and expect from Ruby Tuesday. The development and implementation of our strategy is based on market opportunity and consumer research and informed by management experience and insights. We believe this positioning will make the brand more broadly appealing and appropriate for a wider variety of dining occasions.”
Buettgen used the term “energetic” repeatedly in his presentation to analysts and I wasn’t sure what he meant. But now I think he sees the need to infuse human energy through honest human engagement into each of his restaurant. He wants the casual, affordable, approachable buzz that exists in the best diners. I think that’s what a lot of restaurants are lacking and seeking.