The 29th floor elevator exits into orderly chaos. The buzz and energy are almost audible with staff seemingly everywhere in white linens, bustling to and fro among tables loaded with trays of food that are partially-prepped or receiving finishing touches. The restaurant isn’t open yet and I’m whisked into a back hallway and up the stairs to the lounge where I meet Geoffrey Wu, who apologizes for the last-minute relocation.
“We’re having an event launch,” says Wu, a Hong Kong restaurant consultant who set up his firm The Forks and Spoons five years ago after many years in hospitality and PR.
With all the finer execution details the restaurant owners are dealing with down below, there’s little wonder they hired Wu to help with marketing and PR and other services.
“Restaurants often run with a very small team and it may be difficult for a stand alone restaurant to invest in an individual in-house with expertise in marketing and communications,” says Su-Lyn Tan, CEO of The Ate Group, a Singapore-based creative and communications shop that works with many restaurants from chains to local independents like Iggy's or Potato Head. “Often it means the owner or team in the kitchen are tasked with this responsibility and it means they’re juggling their actual jobs together with the need to get the word out and help drive footfall.”
That need, however, is becoming more acute in big cities across Asia as competition and new economic pressures have been racheting up quickly.
“The Singapore market is a very noisy one with plenty of new openings and great restaurants,” Tan says. “It may be challenging to get the word out and for any consumer to be aware that you exist.”
That difficulty may be exponentially harder in cities like Hong Kong and Shanghai, where Will Bray, managing director of upscale burger restaurant Beef & Liberty, runs three restaurants in each city. Bray, the former owner of the Pizza Express franchise in China for more than a decade, has noticed that as bricks and mortar retail moves online, commercial developers still building at a frantic rate are turning increasingly to restaurants, which investors are happy to support, to fill the void, especially in Shanghai.
“Many have moved in the hospitality sector as a place to park money and diversify their investment. That’s meant an explosion of restaurants,” says Bray, who estimates the number of Hong Kong restaurants has grown by a third and has doubled in Shanghai over the past three years. “But the traffic of people attending these restaurants have not grown at the same rate. That means its been quite challenging to get visibility and to win the equivalent slice of the pie for people to visit restaurants.“
“Ultimately a restaurant’s goal is to get bums in seats,” says Wu, explaining that the task is much harder now. Actual spending power in Hong Kong has decreased, he says, and groups like foreign expats who used to help support the industry with big drink tabs at restaurants no longer are earning the packages they used to. Meanwhile, despite the rise of social media and local platforms, the F&B media pool overall has shrunk, he argues, with few remaining Chinese language publications covering restaurant events like they used to and fewer Hong Kongers having time to read anything restaurants post anyway.
What’s for launch?
So in this environment, how can a new restaurant break out? While many restaurants are launched by passionate individual owners with personal motivations, Tan says launches need to be done strategically, which means taking the time to sit down and analyse your market, where your customers will come from and where your target audience is getting its information from.
“Restaurant owners are dealing with so many elements, especially at point of launch,” she says, and even though they’re the best people to articulate their unique proposition they just may not be able to take the time. But communications strategies need to be done in a similar way as other business decisions, Tan says. “It shouldn’t be a gut feel and it shouldn’t be left to an individual.” She also stressed that you can’t concentrate all efforts on one platform, but you have to use a symphony or variety of platforms to reach the right people.
Launches are excellent times to get the word out and the initial restaurant branding is a great starting point for communication, both consultants agree. “Every restaurant name has a story or philosophy behind it, like this one” Wu says, sitting in the lounge of upscale Central Hong Kong restaurant VEA, short for Vicky (Cheng) et Antonio (Lai) whose ‘integrated’ food approach has focused on pairing chef Vicky’s dishes with mixologist Antonio’s drink combinations to much acclaim.
“A lot of the challenge actually comes six months in and beyond when often the business owner is left on his or her own and the initial investment for marketing for the launch is over,” Tan says, so it’s important not to invest early in all kinds of marketing bells and whistles that can’t be sustained.
Wu agrees, noting that between launches, complete closure and relaunches and existing restaurants that need help to bring in more customers, he easily spends the most time working with the latter. “Here we really have to use our brain,” he says, thinking of original promotions, stories or campaigns to revive reasons to return or there just won’t be any interest.
To sustain a restaurant over the long haul, they have to ‘get it right’ with enough of what he calls the 4 P’s: price, product, place and promotion. Few are able to nail down all four, he says. The most important, of course, is product. People come to a restaurant for the food above anything else like ambience, but if the price is out of line it won’t work. Some things can compensate for average food, however. “If you have a cracking sea harbor view and crap food, it can still sell,” Wu says. But more often than not, restaurants need help in the form of the last ‘p’ to keep customers coming back – promotion.
Progressive supper: ongoing marketing and communications
Keeping sustained interest these days largely means relying less on traditional media. “Being a smaller operator we choose not to spend the advertising dollar,” Bray says. “We feel that most of the marketing promotions or communications we do are best focused around trying to drive really positive word of mouth, so we’re more focused on what happens inside the restaurant.” For Bray that means tactical promotions inside the restaurant and branding promotions built around key events and influencers amplified through social media.
Relationships with KOLs like food and lifestyle bloggers are very helpful, but Bray, Tan and Wu all say they will very rarely pay them (perhaps only the occasional high-profile KOL) since they really only want genuine writers or foodies who have a relationship with them. Wu says buying fake reviews happens in the industry but he won’t do it because it smarter customers will see through it and it can end up damaging customer relations.
Important platforms for him in Hong Kong are Facebook and Instagram, review sites like TripAdvisor and local media sites like Sassy HK and Time Out. In Shanghai, it’s predominantly WeChat, with occasional use of Weibo and Dianping. While Bray says WeChat is great for rolling many platforms into one to combine stories, photos, creative campaigns and customer interaction, its downside is that users are already inundated so messaging needs care and crafting without being too brash and promotional.
While the consultants advise a multi-pronged approach, all those platforms need monitoring. The review sites especially can’t be ignored since a bad review will draw attention more quickly and damage the restaurant’s attention if not turned around quickly.
“You’ve got to acknowledge it and rectify the problem right away because it moves fast,” Wu says. “The worst is when people ignore it. This stuff catches on fire”. Customer reviews are one thing, Wu says, but environmentalists and social activists are very skilled at shaming businesses for things like using plastic straws or serving shark fin soup.
Wu also says he’s seen restauranteurs who can exacerbate conflicts on social media with insensitive responses that might be sexist or anti-vegan. Tan says she advises shifting those types of conversations offline to private channels. So for reasons of speed and sensivity, both consultants suggest owners who don’t have the time or knack for social media monitoring should consider outsourcing it.
But as a passionate owner, Bray feels differently. “You’ve got to engage and respond. If you’re not prepared to spend the time to do the marketing, to build brand loyalty then you’re not going to get anywhere.” He says the problem with paying someone to craft your messages is you’ll need to pay them a long time for them to really understand your business and often it’s not the same person working for your restaurant all the time. Every email, feedback and TripAdvisor comment that comes in, Bray responds to personally. “It obviously takes a lot of time, but there’s nothing more powerful than somebody who’s had a poor experience getting an email from somebody senior in the organization saying ‘I’m sorry, we really messed up. How can we fix this?'”
“I’ll have what she’s having”
Reviews and food discussions on social media obviously make it very easy for restauranteurs to see what each other are doing, which can be a double-edged sword.
“There can be a ‘me too’ approach sometimes that comes with a shortage of manpower. You feel that ‘this is what everyone else is doing so therefore I should do it too,’” says Tan. = “That can potentially backfire because it doesn’t help to differentiate the business.”
It also means others can copy your promotions, though that doesn’t worry Bray at Beef & Liberty, who says if he has a lobster sandwich special and a competitor decides to go with a lobster sandwich of their own, he really doesn’t care so long as his is better.
“If you’re doing something great and you stand for something and you’re building a brand people see that. So when someone copies something I feel like it comes out much worse, so we don’t worry too much about what others are doing.”
Satiation with brand-building
Much like big name brands, Bray says restaurants also need to invest in long-term brand loyalty and increasingly that means finding a brand purpose.
For Beef & Liberty, it’s an ethos about preserving the environment. Beef is a resource-heavy product so the restaurant aims to balance that by donating to Hong Kong cleanup, a charity that works to preserve the coastlines by using recycled packaging and running low energy restaurants.
It also partners with the Nature Conservancy to sponsor a grueling race event called the Moon Trekker, offering famished racers burgers and drinks at the finish line.
Besides rain, a typhoon tends to bring even more garbage to Hong Kong waters. Today is #WorldOceansDay, so let's take a minute and think about what you can do yourself to stop using single-use plastic. ♻️♀️ Plastic pollution is a serious problem for our oceans, especially for all sea life...We at Beef & Liberty have stopped using straws altogether (paper straws on request only), take-away bags & wet wipe packaging are made of recycled materials & we don’t sell plastic bottled water (we have our own water filtration & purification system). #LeavesandLiberty #WorldOceansDay : @scmp_news
On social media, Bray says, they aim to loosely share content about what Beef & Liberty stands for, like the benefits of grass-fed beef, great ingredients and environmental initiatives along with lighter content about enjoying food socially.
“You’ve really got to give people a reason to come to a restaurant. It’s not just transactional – good product at a good price,” Bray adds, “it has to stand for something too.