With economic uncertainty showing no signs of abating, next year's marketing budgets are bound to be squeezed even tighter. But history suggests now is the time to invest. Emily Manson explains how it can be done without breaking the bank
As the world's economies teeter on the brink of collapse and the down-turn shows no sign of abating, marketing budgets are bound to be squeezed even tighter. Often the first thing to be scrapped or cut in an economic downturn, experience suggests this is the time to be marketing your socks off. With so many competitors reducing their marketing spend, whatever you can afford to invest will have more impact.
Guy Holmes, director of hospitality marketing consultancy Captivate Hospitality, explains: "In this environment the marketing budget goes a lot further as it's one area a lot of businesses have cut back on. Now any marketing can be heard loud and clear and it's important to make the most of this time."
So how can you make the most of whatever budget your operation does have? And what are the key strategies to look at?
Sam Trainor-Buckingham, marketing director at Ignite Hospitality, suggests the most important goal for operators is to capture people's data. "Whether it's in an elaborate way, online or from a business card competition run in-house, once you have the data, you can decide how to use it for the best advantage of the business, whether that's through social media, e-mails or competitions. But the data is the really powerful key and crucial to any business' success. It then becomes about generating different campaigns to engage the customers."
It's important to keep a presence in as many different places as possible, adds Holmes. "It's a lot better to reach 20 people five times than 100 people once as it reinforces your status. People are used to lots of marketing messages so you really need to reach people on different levels, be it a review, a Facebook page, and then a discount flyer in the local gym."
But with the media, he warns operators not to get fixated on the nationals. Holmes says: "Go down to the local newsagents and see what other newspapers and magazines there are and look at different sectors - for instance the gay titles or specialist tourist publications."
"The same goes for local clubs, associations, other hotels or B&Bs in the local area. If you can persuade them to keep your leaflets in their venues this can be an additional plus on top of their word of mouth recommendations."
Ann Elliott, managing director of Elliott Marketing and PR, adds that becoming part of your community is also vital. "Join clubs and organisations and encourage them to hold meetings in your venue. This gives you access to a lot more people - you can also collect their data and build your connections with them," she suggests.
Another avenue is to use your staff as walking marketing tools, suggests Trainor-Buckingham. "If don't have much budget, give staff discount cards to give to their friends and family. On the ground marketing like this requires ideas and people rather than design work and expertise but can be very effective."
Happy guests can also be effective, Elliott advises. "If your current customers recommend you then half your work is done. Keep in touch with them. Make them feel special, acknowledged and appreciated by inviting them to events and thanking them for their custom. If they love you and talk about you, it will pay dividends."
With about 80% of hotel and restaurant bookings now made through online streams, Trainor-Buckinham says that to really maximise your budget, you need to turn to the online world. "Your website needs to be your marketing hub, and everything you do should work towards increasing its presence and ensuring it's sending out the right persuasion messages so potential customers translate into bookings," she says.
It's possible to substantially enhance your profile and customer accessibility through reaching out online. Register with as many free eating and drinking guides, Googleplaces and local websites, create a Facebook page and a Facebook profile as a person, while gaining a following on Twitter will generate faithful followers.
Holmes advises: "Search for other restaurants in the area, local groups, other shops and businesses and see who their friends are and invite them to be your friend. Like that you can build up to a critical mass quite quickly and then you can ask them all to like your page or follow you."
If you do have some money to spend, Trainor-Buckinham advises pay per click for Google adverts. "You need to ensure you get the right key words but it is effective and it's also trackable. So unlike a lot of PR and advertising, you can know exactly what you get back from your investment."
It's also worth considering paying for professional photography. Holmes says: "Don't cut corners on photography. It's tempting to cut costs but it looks terrible. It's so important to have good quality food and interior shots - it's really worth the investment."
Simple steps to maximising your marketing budget
1 Have clear objectives and be persistent
2 Generate objective third party endorsements through local press and publicity
3 Use staff, friends, family and regulars to generate "word of mouth" publicity
4 Embrace new technology - Twitter, Facebook and other social media are free to use and only take your time
5 Involve the customer - make them feel part of your operation by using innovative ideas to get them involved
6 Personalisation is a growing trend - use it wherever you can
7 Engage top food and restaurant bloggers, their influence is growing
8 Attend local events and meetings for networking, consider sponsorship or stalls at local markets and festivals
9 Give customers a reason to visit your operation NOW using limited offers, special nights or even charity fundraisers
10 Register with all the free online eating, drinking guides and marketing sites
11 Don't be afraid of ridiculous promotions - quirky is a great draw for customers and often generates local press attention
12 Build your database - use free draws and monthly prizes to grow your contacts
13 Ensure your existing customers are happy and offer something extra for those who return or recommend a friend
14 Use students/apprentices to drive your social media - odds are they'll know much more than you
15 Pay for good photography - it's worth it
Shunning publicity generates interest: Hedone, Chiswick
Hedone opened on 1 July having turned down offers to be represented by most of the capital's top PR companies. Owner Mikael Jonsson, an ex-lawyer, turned food writer, turned "newbie" restaurateur, got behind the stove for the first time and, perhaps unsurprisingly, actually didn't want publicity.
But his plan backfired. His back story and different food proposition meant he was of immediate interest to food writers and foodies.
Within a fortnight of opening, he had received visits from the likes of Fay Maschler and Time Out and food bloggers were vying to get tables. It was little short of a media circus. Within months, the Harden Guide named Hedone as one of the top openings of the year, placing it at the top end of the Capital's culinary spectrum, seemingly without trying. "The first couple of nights were quite slow but then Andy Hayler's review came out, followed by the others and we we've been packed since then," Jonsson says.
But it has proved a mixed blessing as there's been no time to plan his menus, think ahead and find his culinary feet. "It was almost like a nightmare. I didn't want the critics to come in at first and never expected it to fill up so fast," he adds. But he does admit, it's a nice problem to have.
If it's free, jump on the bandwagon: Mulberry Tree, Kent
The Mulberry Tree had "virtually zero budget for marketing" when it first opened, according to owner Karen Williams. Her strategy was "if it was free, I jumped on the bandwagon."
Being one of Caterer & Hotelkeeper's Best for Business operations in 2009 introduced her to industry PR Andrew Merrett. He taught her how to write press releases, create news and advised her "to keep the media snowball turning and generate our own stories."
Williams didn't just use good news either. "When we had a power cut and were fully booked I rang the local paper - we got a full spread on page two. It generated a lot of local business."
She also joined Produced in Kent for £250 and subsequently won the restaurant of the year award two years running. "This put us on the map locally and gave us kudos with the local papers - all for £250 quid."
Williams also put ads in parish magazines, took stands at local food fayres, and gave away menus and free samples with offers for the restaurant.
"It worked well as we could track the feedback from our cards," she said.
A constant stream of special events also helps keep up the restaurant's profile, while a simple business card prize draw pot helps maintain the database.
Shifting to social media: Illegal Jacks, Edinburgh
Having had a previous career as a marketing lecturer, AC Muir, owner of Illegal Jacks, realised there had been "a paradigm shift in marketing away from traditional methods to social media" so he read everything he could about that field and implemented it. "None of it would matter if we didn't have great food and music, but it enables us to make people feel really special. If they tweet they're coming, we have a table waiting for them with their name on it."
He threw a few big parties for customers to thank them for their support and then they started making films and songs about the restaurant. "We live and breathe this place, but the response from customers has been awesome."
He admits he's had a steep learning curve and made mistakes. "it's about being social, not about selling," he explains, "and we know this results in sales, around a third of our customers will be the Twitter crowd."
While he's happy "chatting and just hanging out being social" on twitter, he's more circumspect with Facebook. "We don't update our status unless there's a clear benefit and win for the customer, you've got to be smarter to engage people, but the way to grow is not to try and grow."