Hospitality marketing post-Trump

Published 9 May 2017

by James Lewis

Not long ago, letting a business owner loose on Twitter was a PR death wish. But 2016 was an eventful year. Politics has proved that to communicate effectively, we don’t do things the old way anymore. Maybe restaurant marketing needs to embrace the anti-establishment?

Ever since I can remember, the hospitality industry has toed the line following the rules of communication obediently. Traditional media was courted by traditional PR companies typically looking after 20 or more clients who would be carefully positioned in this week’s ‘hot lists’ or ‘roundups’ and customers would duly follow suit.

This industry ‘establishment’ has sailed a very steady ship for years. Who would want to upset this applecart? Everybody gets paid. The PR company gets its monthly retainer. The journalists get their constant flow of freebies. The media keeps its authoritative status and its flow of advertising revenue continues.

Today however, I can feel customers are beginning to sense this is a carefully spun act. The endless puff pieces, the sickly adoration, the brownnosing matey reviews, the relentless spew of ‘I’ll scratch your back’ lists, guides and restaurant finders – both printed and digital – has ended up as choreographed noise. It’s New Labour, it’s Cameron & Osborne. Slick and grinning.

And just like the voting public, the consumer is no different. Today’s restaurant goers are cynical. Dubious. Sceptical. They’ve grown weary of the act, the strategies, the orchestrated spin. Highly polished press releases and carefully planned lead times feel awfully contrived, and bandwagon-jumping gimmicks are regularly screenshotted and publicly ripped apart by the sniggering Twitterati. The 21st Century customer can see right through it.

They want transparency, truth, warts-and-all honesty. And if this means unmanaged social media accounts, bad grammar, drunken outbursts, public squabbles and all-out handbags on a Sunday afternoon, so be it.

A few of my favourite people in this industry are already becoming known for being just this. What would have been commercial suicide is now becoming a way to earn affection. The late-night tirade against the arsey customer, the angry exchanges, the public inter-industry fallings out, all would have been advised to keep quiet because ‘that’s not the way things are done’.

Is this Donald Trump marketing? Nigel Farage Marketing? I shudder at the association, but you can’t help but create the analogy.

This is all good news for the little guy, as independents don’t have the layers of red tape to clear before communicating. If anything, they’ve created this new era for restaurants. And the big players are quick to follow suit, with their marketing increasingly taking up a more ‘unkempt’ approach. See Wetherspoons publicly calling out Jamie Oliver over his closing restaurants announcements, for example.

How influential is the establishment anymore anyway? One of the more well-known food journalists recently was being criticised for giving a certain clean-eating guru ‘publicity’ via the paper’s Instagram feed. I found this hilarious, especially when the person concerned had almost ten times the follower count as the newspaper. Who’s publicising who here?

But far from being an anti-critic piece, this is quite the opposite. Some critics too have learned that the direct-engagement approach curries favour with their own readers. While a few still take the ‘I don’t do comments’ snobbish aloofness, the cleverer roll up their sleeves happily and get stuck in, arguing publicly like one of the masses with anyone who weighs in with an opinion. Good on them.

However, it was a past era of critics you could rely on for being regularly acerbic, and today’s feel rather meek in comparison. The three star reviews arrive every week, safe and inoffensive, perhaps themselves now in fear of a comments war or chef Twitter tangle? One cannot help but feel yesterday’s critics wouldn’t have had such fears.

The dreaded TripAdvisor review should also get a mention here, too. My acknowledgement of the positive influence of user-generated reviews and sites is known, and guess what, this plays directly into this idea. The user-review is about the most anti-establishment form of marketing there is. The pure unadulterated, unmoderated, uncensored, fake-news, crack cocaine of marketing. The jaded consumer adores the user review. It’s Amazon, it’s Uber, it’s Airbnb. The fact that a restaurant can fake it actually makes it more real, more post- 2016, more populist, like the fake-news Twitter feeds, because the consumer likes to know they can spot the fake, it puts them in command.

So maybe the evolution of influence is inevitable, and the smart are already adapting. Old media will stop fretting about the shrinking pool of ad revenue and unbutton its shirt. Critics will sharpen their knives and say what they really think. PR companies will take a more loosey-goosey approach and stop gagging their clients. A new era of anti-establishment restaurant marketing is here and it’s up to the smartest to find a way of taking back control.

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