Contributed By Chris Ebbeler, Marketing Director. Culture Enthusiast. Social Media Pro. Helping to bridge the gap between what your people believe and what you tell the outside world. Spent 15+ years at Brinker in Peopleworks, social media and marketing.
I love a good game of Jenga. Where else can you find the simplest of family friendly games delivering a deep anxiety inducing terror? There’s a weird mix of closure and hope that comes across our faces when we see those tiny towers of wood wobbling uneasily. We know the pieces are about to go everywhere. Currently, we are all collectively trying to pick up the pieces of perhaps the biggest game of Jenga we’ve ever played and put them back together resembling what we knew before. The restaurant industry is no exception.
If you’ve read my current slant on restaurant talent marketing, especially after enduring the disruption from the previous year, you may still have more questions than answers while you medicate through that wicked case of heartburn and your 11th iced coffee of the day. Well, you’re not alone. A lot of brands in the short term are throwing money and iPhones at this (if you don’t believe me, look up the McDonald’s franchisee offering iPhones for 6 months of steady work). My personal belief is it will take much more. Here’s my take on 3 big ideas to focus on, right now, that will help you reach your talent pool to build and shape your workforce.
Don’t worry—here comes the good news.
1. Restaurant Talent Marketing Focus #1: CONTENT
Content marketing is just flat out expensive—or at least that’s the pushback I’ve heard from any number of leaders through the years. It’s hard to prove the point that telling your story and investing in content creation with freelancers or agency partners is going to deliver the type of yield a leader expects to see. I remember nearly falling out of my chair a few years back at a conference where the Senior Director of Ford Motors social media casually threw out the number $75 million without batting an eye. Mind you, I never tried to pitch a CMO on spending baller money, but as a percentage of sales it likely makes sense for social media at Ford. Restaurant and hospitality companies have it harder though—margins are razor thin and the video shoot you want to do equals tens of thousands of appetizers you’ll need to sell to make up for the spend.
The good news is that you already have some amazing content creators working for you. Whether you like it or not, your team members are filming PLENTY of content within the workplace. As an example, the hashtag #WorkingAtMcDonalds has been used OVER 3.1 MILLION times on TikTok. Countless baristas from Starbucks show up on my FYP (For You Page) wearing their green aprons and producing content. Do they always tag the brand? No. Do they always promote the newest drink? No. Does that make you nervous? Don’t even try to say it doesn’t. By nature, brand marketing teams don’t like the idea that they can’t control the narrative. But, the personality behind those team members is a literal gold mine.
You desperately need a human approach to your employment brand. It’s the only thing that will work on social platforms in today’s world. Partner with your people. Celebrate your people. Promote their content. Take the reins off and let them go for it. Because you no longer will have the luxury of controlling that story—and your target audience would sniff it out in a heartbeat anyhow. You have the bigger platform, and frankly, there’s very few in that audience that doesn’t want their stuff to “blow up”. Giving them a boost and helping draw attention to them is an appealing trade off. And if the last 15 months have taught us nothing, we don’t really care about all the flashy graphics and fancy lighting. The whole world is recalibrated now to accepting low-fi and funky versus slickly produced and expensive. Take advantage of it.
2. Restaurant Talent Marketing Focus #2: AUDIENCE
It seems a little controversial or at the very least uncomfortable to say this, but I haven’t been the first and won’t be the last: A global catastrophe educated us (and will continue to teach us) about our systems, our infrastructure, and the industries that keep this big blue marble spinning. By no means making light of the grief and sadness, the remarkable power of resilience in the face of challenges has provided us new ways of looking at this industry and the vast connective tissue that brings it all together. Both small and large brands alike quickly made the pivot to keep their business afloat amid so much doubt. Restaurants that had never even considered To-Go found a way to pull it off, and small local favorites found a way to invest in digital and delivery. Virtual brands and ghost kitchens made five years of progress in one year of trials. All of this acceleration is like the most retweeted social meme of the industry: “How it started. How it’s going.” Writ large.
Additionally, in the midst of so much acceleration, we also experienced what Scott Galloway, Marketing Professor at NYU Stern School of Business, calls The Great Dispersion. Whether it’s the ridiculous number of streaming services that allow us to skip the theater, or tele-medicine that lets us skip the doctor’s office, or Amazon letting us skip the store—we have SO. MANY. CHOICES. Even work has been dispersed, as hundreds of thousands of employees are given the option to work wherever they want for the foreseeable future. These same forces of dispersion are showing up in the diversity of options for earning a living and removing the “middleman”. You only need look at the meteoric rise of platforms like Substack, Patreon, Cameo and OnlyFans which makes it clear; fans will subscribe and pay for content directly to the content creator and will skip the traditional distribution models that have been in place for decades.
What you can offer that single mom doesn’t equate the same level of importance to an 18-year-old server. I can speak from experience. My son recently jumped at the chance to interview and eventually accept a job with Uncle Julio’s—his third brand experience in this industry. I can assure you—he didn’t see a single marketing message from Uncle Julio’s. He heard his buddies that work there talk about the $400 in tips they made on Cinco de Mayo. Great money, great culture, great food, great Manager AND his support network is already in place? Slam dunk. Lastly, the restaurant industry labor model has been scrutinized for years. Why not do the hard work to find ways to ensure talented team members can earn a living wage and not have to cobble three jobs together to equal one full time career? Katie Porter and her whiteboard are coming for us.
3. Restaurant Talent Marketing Focus #3: REACH
Back in my learning strategy days, we had a snarky phrase for in-person, multi-day workshops intended to change beliefs. We called it “spray and pray.” The company would spend thousands of dollars in travel and hotel costs, spray down the group with a ton of attention and a lot of mind fuel, then pray that the investment in 25 hyped up people leaders would pay off when they made it back out into the field. You could argue the same approach has been adopted for recruitment marketing. For years we scrambled after Millennials as a target workforce, spraying them down with a conversation about authenticity and purpose beyond profits, while praying they would come apply and tell all their friends to do the same. For the most part, it worked. Hundreds of podcasts and webinars encouraged brands to give back and show the world that a company could have a voice, it could show a personality and it could leave the world better than we found it. Over time, more and more adopted the philosophy. Years later, a jaded workforce believes the truth behind giving back is just virtue signaling and nothing but a marketing message intended to sway the non-believers that “we’re good at our soul.”
A reminder from earlier: Institutions = Bad. So, how can you share your story without sharing your story? Find someone who is trusted and who has a voice in creating beliefs for your audience. Influencer Marketing was already undergoing significant change even before the pandemic. But Covid accelerated a lot of shifts that were already happening, toward “loose and unfiltered” content that doesn’t feel scripted or staged, and most of all…is believable. Influencers are known for taking brand deals, but if the audience feels like they just took the money to shill something they don’t truly believe in, all kinds of trolling and negativity is unleashed on the brand and influencer alike. However, if you find people who truly believe in your company and what you offer, the benefits from a marketing investment in telling your story can have exponential dividends.
One of the most brilliant moves I’ve seen in years for restaurant brands was announced in early May when Sweetgreen debuted their newest investor and first ever national athlete ambassador, Naomi Osaka. In my opinion, while I’m sure it was an expensive deal in the short run, this exposure will fundamentally shift beliefs in the Sweetgreen product, brand story, image and it's now vaunted ability to attract a workforce that will happily proclaim how much they love their brand. At the core, this move will not only bring in more consumers and brand fans but will help align the employment brand to a tremendously compelling story. The glass half empty crowd will get hung up on what was paid or the lack of that kind of scratch in existing budgets, but I’d encourage everyone to focus instead on the belief they created through a brilliantly chosen partnership which feels deeply authentic and true to what they believe.
Remember our collapsed Jenga tower? No big deal. Pick them up and put them right back in the stacks of three we all know so well. Right? Wrong. This time is different. The complex forces of dispersion and acceleration on our businesses means those pieces will go back together in a far more complicated shape than we’ve ever designed before. The game has changed. Talent marketing and employment branding moving forward needs to be more than a fun “We’ve Got the Recipe for Your Next Career” campaign. Go deep. Unwrite the rules. Let go of the sacred cows. Brands have a challenging uphill climb to reflect and embrace the world we live in now, which is really complicated. The myriad issues facing our country and the world like divisive government, economic policy, inequality, racism, sexism, diversity, inclusion, unconscious bias, social psychology and climate policy will all play a part in crafting a story that resonates for all. And, in the event you find that voice in your head saying this sounds more complicated than it used to be? Trust your instincts.