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The Ultimate Restaurant Branding Guide

We surveyed our subscribers, and one of the most requested topics to cover was restaurant branding. Branding is elusive, often vaguely described, and subjective. This post aims to paint a clear image of what makes a brand effective, and why it's so important to your restaurant's success.
Written by Rory Bokser
Branding 101
The Basics
What is branding? Branding is the collection of associations in the mind, both conscious and unconscious (Weber). It goes far beyond your name and logo; it spans across all of your actions. Branding covers both what is consciously interpreted: your design, storefront and layout, menu, and culinary presentation, but also the unconscious impression and emotions that become associated with your restaurant.
Positioning
When constructing your brand, positioning will determine where you are placed in your customers' minds. Using the four following "P" aspects: product, price, place, and promotion, you can narrow the focus of your branding. I discussed pricing positioning in my last post: 7 Ways To Increase Restaurant Sales.
Ideally, your customer should be able to answer the following questions:
- What occasions are best suited for this restaurant?
- What emotions do the dishes evoke?
- Why does this restaurant exist?
If you communicate your vision clearly through your branding, your customers will feel, understand, and promote it. If they can't explain your vision, either you have poorly defined these yourself, or are struggling to communicate it.
Visuals
Visual representation of your brand is one of the strongest methods of communicating your vision. If you close your eyes, can you imagine the logos, colors, and mascots for the big fast food chains: McDonald's, Wendy's, and Burger King? You probably can, they have among the most recognizable brands in the world.
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But this isn't simply a matter of size. Consistent menus, uniforms, interior design, advertisement, and public relations all drill home the same messaging. The overarching themes and emotions are communicated through each visual medium, conveying the same branding.
Choose your colors carefully. Here is a list of each of their meanings.
Don't care about colors? Skip Ahead.
Orange: Fresh, Youthful, Creative, Adventurous.
Orange Julep's Iconic Bulb
Orange Julep established itself as a landmark in Montreal with the bold, nearly visible from outer-space, giant orange. Conveying freshness, Orange Julep attracts the young and adventurous for its namesake drink.
Blue: Communicative, Trustworthy, Calming.
Green: Natural, Vitality, Prestige, Health.
The Starbucks' Two-Tailed Green Mermaid
Starbucks' Mission statement: "To inspire and nurture the human spirit - one person, one cup and one neighborhood at a time". Another pillar of Starbucks' brand philosophy is to be a responsible and socially ethical company. They use the natural aspects of green-themed associations to achieve their mission.
Purple: Royalty, Majesty, Spiritual, Mysterious.
Brown: Organic, Wholesome, Simple, Honest.
Copper Branch Shows Off Its Roots
Montreal-based restaurant Copper Branch serves plant-based vegan power foods. They utilize earthy brown tones to symbolize the wholesomeness of their food offerings.
Pink: Feminine, Sentimental, Romantic, Exciting.
Yellow: Optimistic, Cheerful, Playful, Happy.
Snapchat The Friendly Ghost
Snapchat took the tech world by storm, winning over crowds of youthful photo-sharers. The playful app maintains a lightweight and fun user experience that is consistent with the company's branding.
Black: Sophisticated, Formal, Luxurious, Sorrowful.
Red: Danger, Passion, Excitment, Energy.
Consistently Red Design
Kombi is a Canadian company that sells warm winter clothing. They use the color red to elicit a feeling of warmth, heat, and also to play on Canadian pride, using the color of the flag.
Interesting Note: the color red is extremely common in Fast Food chain logos. Despite this studies indicate customers are less likely to eat from a red plate than a blue one... Still, the color red evokes excitement that entices customers to make a snap decision to purchase.
White: Purity, Simplicity, Innocence, Minimalism.
The key takeaway? No matter the colors and designs you choose, branding is portrayed in the entirety of your communication.
Let's go deeper into one company that nailed their branding.
Branding Done Right - Case Study
You can't see this company's name, but you know it.
Larger Than Life Branding
Coca-Cola's brand has consistently emphasized "sharing happiness." While they have faced criticism for rebranding with "New Coke", and re-rebranding to Coca-Cola Classic, they have managed to reign supreme since 1886.
Their advertising always features people smiling. If you were asked to describe the drink in a word, you would likely choose "refreshing." This drives home the point above - customers need to be able to describe your branding back to you, and in Coca-Cola's case, we certainly can.
A Throwback To Simpler Times
Coca-Cola pioneered the "giveaway," where promoters hand out the product for free. This not only gives a sample to individuals (who have likely tried it before), but it strengthens message of these events. Free music, entertainment, and refreshing drinks all provide a fun, happy experience. Coca-Cola becomes associated with "Happiness" - and that's precisely what branding is about.
So what can a restaurant learn from this? You aren't about to build a 50-foot version of your most popular dish for customers to walk through. But this is what clear branding looks like blown-up, literally. Your keyword may not be "happiness", but rather "family", "home", "vintage", "sweet", "Mediterranean", "trees", or literally anything else. Choose a theme, and let it guide your decision-making process. The unity in your messaging will effectively communicate your value.
The Checklist
Why?
Simon Sinek's book, "Start With Why," outlines how most companies explain what they do and how they do it, but not why they do it. Customers' emotions do not resonate with what's on your menu, how you prepared it, but rather, why you chose to share it with the world.
Story
One of the most effective ways to communicate your "why" is by telling your story. Just like a good brand, people remember, embrace, and share compelling stories. What brought you to open a restaurant? Your life-long joy of cooking? Your years of hard-work as a bus-boy, waiter, manager, and now owner? The smell and taste of your grandmother's home-made meatballs? Share your story.
Consistency
If your "why" is at the core of your decision-making principles, it will guide all of your decisions. Your menus - both the items on it and its design, your staff's uniforms, the physical layout of your restaurant, your opening hours, how you communicate with the press, your website and custom restaurant application, and yes, your name and logo.
If any one of these diverges in theme, customers will feel confused at worst, and unable to explain your "why" at best. Consistency really is king.
Execution
Let's look at one final example to see how these tips can be employed.
Chipotle
Colors: red (the common pull color of all big brands) and a darker, brownish-red: organic, wholesome, and simple.
Why?
"Because we believe that food should not only be fresh, it should not contain hormones, antibiotics or GMO's. We believe your food should be prepared in front of you so you can see our commitment to using fresh, local and sustainable products. We also make a damn great burrito." You can practically hear them say it.
Story
Chipotle founder Steve Ells had attended the Culinary Institute of America. After graduating, he worked as a sous chef before launching Chipotle in 1993. At 28, Ells created Chipotle to help him fund a fine-dining restaurant he had dreamed of. The restaurant quickly gained traction with its fast, yet quality, food service and began to gain a cult following. While his dream didn't pan out, customers loved the quality and authenticity of Chipotle.
His advice for restaurants: "So many people told me it was not a good idea to a start a restaurant, especially a fast-food restaurant. There was so much wrong with it; it was too spicy; everything was done by hand, from scratch. Everything was wrong. But that's why customers liked it; it's different, in the right way. If you have an idea, just go for it. If everybody is telling you that it's wrong, maybe that's an indication that it's an original idea." - Interview with the WSJ
Consistency
From earthy colors, mirrored in brown-paper-bag packaging, to marketing that features scarecrows, farm animals, and emphasizes sustainability, you can practically read Chipotle's messaging off of their cups.
From the front door to the back of the kitchen, Chipotle is designed to feel wholly wholesome.
Branding your restaurant properly can be the difference between Chipotle-level expansion, and empty seats at dinner. Hopefully you are now equiped with a clear understanding of where to begin on your branding journey.
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