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The Great Debates Independents
vs. Chains

Original Article:

The Chains are Winning, and it's all in the Marketing
by Bob Bradley

In conversation after conversation with independent restaurant operators concerning the proliferation of chains, it's usually the same line of thinking. "My food is one-hundred percent better, my service is better, and you can eat here for pretty much the same cost. It's a shame - people just don't appreciate fresh food, and simply don't know any better."

But guess what - they ain't going for the food, and they don't believe for a second that your prices are competitive with those of their favorite chain. And while the independent guy continues to make sense, he continues to lose business to his glitzy (any extremely annoying) neighbors.

The war isn't being fought in the kitchen, it's being won in an office several doors away from the President. They call that person the Director of Marketing, and he or she is responsible for spending the big bucks in radio and television, and those beautiful four-color print ads that can make a hamburger place look like a DiRoNa Award winner.

When it comes to marketing, the independents simply can't compete with the chains, because when it comes to advertising, money wins, and by definition, the independents can't compete. One guy is talking about his "word of mouth" advertising, and the next guy is spending millions on a national TV campaign. And people do watch lots of television, and they are absolutely influenced by advertising.

The independent guy sits down with his local newspaper rep, and together they hammer out next week's advertising. The other guy is busy flying to New York to meet with the ad agency and to critique his new fall marketing campaign. It's not a level playing field.

The best proof that advertising works is that customers stand in line at the chains, and guess what - according to the Thomas Register FoodTRENDS '97 survey to some 200 chain executives, 2% of those customers are concerned about the quality of the food and the service. 2%!!! I seriously doubt that this means that 98% don't care, but I take this to mean that the overwhelming majority of chain customers are just assuming that the food and service is fine. What's really important to them is the cost and the atmosphere, (and all that fun as portrayed in the commercials).

Now the good news, because there is an answer to this competitive disadvantage (which is extremely difficult but not absolutely impossible). The independents simply get together; ante up a few dollars, and hire their own ad agency. Their campaign zeros in on all the things that make dining out so enjoyable. Chefs; owners, live and in person; fresh food; great service; etc., etc. Tell this story with all the power of modern marketing, and you get "standing room only."

And just in case you think this concept is insane, we just had lunch in one of the nation's best restaurants, and discussed this very idea (an independent advertising campaign). Their reaction was "let's do it, and you can count on us as the first participant." And the journey of a thousand miles begins with one step...

Reader Feedback:

Page One  (James, Lito Benitez, Lyndele von Schill, Sally O'Brien, Ray)
Page Two  (Deborah Kay Neumann, Joe Seigo, Kristian Niemi, Joe Janowich, Howard Black)
Page Three  (Simon Zylph, N/A, Louciano Mora, Erik Slater, Sherri Maddick)

Related Feature Articles:

Independent Restaurant Survival in a Mega-Chain World - By Ron Gordetsky & Kate Lange
Independent Survival: "Marketing From The Inside Out" - By Maren L. Hickton

Your Turn:
If you've got something to say, we would love to hear from you. Please visit the Great Debates Feedback Page to send in your comments.

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