Trends and Tools in Food Service Marketing

San Diego leaders share the shifts influencing restaurant marketing and the levers they use to drive awareness, purchase and loyalty

Recently, I was honored to moderate a panel of three San Diego restaurant marketing luminaries. The area leaders participating in AMA San Diego’s Restaurant Marketing Panel in January, 2018 were:

Each of the panelists participated in the 2017 AMA San Diego State of Marketing Study, to which this event was a follow-up. Q2 Insights designs, conducts and compiles the report each year for the multi-year State of Marketing Study and our partners at FreshForm contribute strategic vision and creative design.

The conversation with the restaurant marketing panelists covered two different takes on trends:

  1. Trends in restaurant marketing
  2. Restaurant trends influencing marketing

Panelists also discussed the most important tools in their marketing toolbox.


Key trends in restaurant marketing include the digital store front, execution, event marketing, understanding the target audience, and competing for ‘share of stomach’.

The digital store front is critical to restaurant marketing due to the fact that brands are “found” on the web. The web is also where initial impressions are made about a brand. It is the introduction to the brand. Marketers must ensure that their brand is found, and that the first impression is true to the brand promise.

Execution is gold in the restaurant business. Restaurant marketers view execution as a part of their role. Increasingly, consumers tune out marketing. Marketers do not have much opportunity to “talk at people” anymore, making it essential the guests have an amazing experience when they come to a restaurant.

To achieve this, marketers put a lot of energy into building their culture to deliver the brand promise and hiring the right people. Believing that the personality of the staff members is important to the brand experience, Burger Lounge focuses on “hiring the personality and training the skill.” Acculturation is an important process so they make sure that all employees understand the “why” behind the brand. At Karl Strauss, the marketing team focuses on “making people happy one Karl Strauss beer at a time.”

Not only is restaurant execution important in the real world, but it is also an important consideration for marketers in the digital world. Guests are extremely vocal about problems and issues they experience. To address this, marketers must stay on top of all Yelp and Facebook interactions. Rather than sending a message stating a response will be sent in the next 48 hours, restaurant brands are choosing to respond to issues within an hour.

Event marketing at a restaurant or off-site is an effective way to bring people into the brand as it allows people to experience the brand. Real life interactions with guests and potential guests trump traditional and digital marketing which are viewed as important but less effective.

Striving to understand the target audience and key guest segments is a trend. While Millennials are often identified as a key target by restaurant brands, restaurants are finding greater success by focusing on the psychographics of their guests such as behavior and lifestyle characteristics rather than demographics such as age and gender. Psychographics in combination with demographics and other guest characteristics are used to develop guest segments which are used for planning business and marketing strategy.

Understanding that restaurant brands compete for share of stomach and not exclusively in a tightly defined category (such as burgers, beer, or breakfast) is a trend. Toward this end, marketers focus on ensuring that all their efforts are performed uncommonly well in a manner that avoids the veto vote by having something on the menu for everyone.


Restaurant trends that are having a big influence on marketing include: out-of-restaurant dining, guests who are increasingly socially conscious, the guests’ desire for convenience, and the death of retail.

Out-of-restaurant dining is continuing to increase accompanied by the rapid growth of third party delivery services such as Door Dash, Uber Eats and Postmates. How people are consuming restaurant food is changing. The key challenge for marketers and restaurant brands in general is how to keep the brand intact when it is delivered to the door.

This may not be possible due to the fact that what is delivered to the door is food in a box, and is not representative of the entire brand experience. To address this, marketers must focus on packaging.  Ensuring that top notch food is delivered can be a logistical nightmare especially for brands for which ticket times are not fast. Also, some foods simply don’t hold up well traveling in a box.

Guests are becoming increasingly socially conscious, at times creating a challenge for marketers. While some brands position themselves on transparent, ethical, and eco-conscious food sourcing, others are finding themselves increasing held to these standards despite the fact that their brands have not been built on these pillars.

Guests want to understand where food comes from. They can also be very negative about any food items with names that are perceived as being offensive in any way. Restaurant marketers must respond to their guest base without abandoning their key brand elements. Some brands are not socially conscious but are either forced to become more so or communicate in a way that suggests they are socially conscious.

A big challenge for restaurant brands that truly are socially conscious is that other brands lie about being focused on transparent sourcing and food that honors the body and the planet. In response, restaurant marketers are innovating and adding depth to the discussion. They seek to marry convenience, the right location, the right price, and a compelling back story.

The desire for convenience is critical to guests in the fast casual space so marketers are also influenced by the need for speedy food delivery. Where marketers often step in is assisting with innovation to speed up food delivery while simultaneously elevating the guest experience.

The death of retail is a trend that keeps marketers awake at night. With the rise in online shopping and apps such as the Starbucks app which allows ordering that minimizes interaction with Starbucks staff, the opportunity to interact is declining.

There is a general depersonalization of the shopping experience. This trend is impacting many aspects of the restaurant business including site selection, how dependent restaurants want to be on what is around their locations that can encourage business, and, most importantly for marketing, the brand value proposition. Understating a brand’s purpose while building an authentic brand without beating consumers over the head with the message has been every effective for one fast casual brand.


When asked about the most effective tools in their marketing toolbox, restaurant marketers from The Broken Yolk Café, Karl Strauss Brewing Company, and Burger Lounge talked about staff, word-of-mouth marketing, integrated marketing, data collection and data-driven decision making, innovation, local area marketing, being good partners in the community, keeping all aspects of marketing in-house, having a dynamic offering, and sourcing from food producers.

The greatest asset to restaurant marketers is the people on the front line who create the brand experience. Effort is made to train house staff, reward them, and retrain them if necessary. Training and execution are viewed as a big part of marketing.

A general principal in the restaurant world is that if word-of-mouth is good, people will visit the brand. To ensure that word-of-mouth is positive, restaurant marketers focus on three key elements for success: restaurant ambiance, the service offering/service model, and the food. Focus cannot just be on the food. It is everything that happens within the four walls of the restaurant that is critical.

Having an integrated marketing approach is important. All parts of the marketing effort must be dialed in with all elements “talking to each other.”

Data collection and data driven decision making are very important to restaurant brands. Surveying guests is now so sophisticated that not only are guest opinions and behaviors gathered, but sentiment can be tied to a specific employee, day and day-part which is very useful in determining where to change course and engage in retraining.

Restaurant brands are constantly trying to innovate and this is seen as an important marketing tool. Brands must be nimble. When an opportunity or thought comes the brand must be open to and have the budget to innovate on the fly. Courage and risk-taking are required.

Local area or store marketing is of vital importance in the marketing toolbox. Each restaurant is provided with an area of responsibility. Local area marketing can be both local and hyper local. It takes considerable time and effort to introduce the many parts of the trade area to the restaurant brand.

Restaurant marketers also work to be good partners in the community. The restaurant general manager and others are tasked with engaging with local schools, sports teams, non-profits, and business organizations to create authentic relationships and work on establishing the restaurant as part of the fabric of the community. By sponsoring events they are not only giving back to the community but also getting the restaurant brand name out in the public domain.

The Broken Yolk Cafe has found keeping all aspects of marketing in-house has vastly improved logistics, speed of communication, and speed of response to issues raised on Yelp and Facebook. The brand has all marketing, PR, digital, video and SEO in-house. Marketing feels that this allows them to maintain direct communications with customers without any delays that would be introduced by an outside agency.

Karl Strauss Brewing Company believes that having a dynamic offering is an asset to marketing. The brand has expanded its small batch offer and has 24 handles to fill. This has generated a substantial following although it requires some work to keep beer innovation in play and staff educated so they, in turn, can educate guests.

Burger Lounge maintains that sourcing from suppliers is a critical part of their marketing toolbox. Examples include grass fed beef and organic cheese. Marketing is involved by telling the story in an authentic way and by ensuring that the brand experience has depth. How food is cooked is no longer a sufficient story.


There is no “one size fits all” approach to restaurant marketing. Not only is restaurant marketing complicated but it is also dependent upon the type of restaurant (e.g. quick service, casual, fast casual, polished casual, fine dining), the service model, the cuisine, the target audience, and the share of stomach competitors. As our panelists demonstrated, restaurant marketers no longer simply represent the marketing arm of the business. They must engage in many aspects of the restaurant business in order to ply their craft including staff training, execution, and innovation.

I would like to extend a big “thank you” to the marketing experts from Burger Lounge, Karl Strauss Brewing Company, and The Broken Yolk Café who shared their insights with us in January. It was a great pleasure learning more about the art and science of restaurant marketing.

Kirsty Nunez is the President and Chief Research Strategist at Q2 Insights, Inc., a research and innovation consulting firm with offices in San Diego and New Orleans. One of Q2 Insights areas of specialization is restaurant marketing. If you would like to learn more, please reach out to Kirsty and her team at (760) 230-2950 ext. 1 or

Q2 Insights, Inc. designs, conducts, analyzes, and compiles the report for the State of Marketing Study each year. FreshForm contributes strategic vision and creative design to the report. If the Chief Marketing Officer, Vice President of Marketing, or the Director of Marketing from your organization would like to participate in the 2018 State of Marketing Study, please have them contact Kirsty Nunez at or (760) 230-2950.

About Kirsty

Kirsty Nunez is the President and Chief Research Strategist at Q2 Insights, Inc., a research and innovation consulting firm with offices in San Diego and New Orleans. She can be reached at (760) 230-2950 ext. 1 or