Written by Lee Price

08ad3b5This was my first year at Summer Brand Camp, and it was an eye-opening experience for me. I’m not an industry insider. At Rep Cap, we manage marketing for companies in all kinds of industries, so I had a lot to learn about what’s specifically going on in the restaurant industry. In a word, I was impressed. The brands (read: people) who come to Summer Brand Camp are a committed, kind, generous crew, and they represent the best of what’s happening in the industry.

The group of marketing, HR and operations pros at Summer Brand Camp taught me that the top players in the restaurant industry are creating three major, positive trends.

Restaurants are breaking down silos.

Summer Brand Camp brings together employees from HR, marketing and operations, and it wasn’t a coincidence that a major focus of the week was breaking down silos and working together across departments and functions.

I was most struck by the positive change that can happen when marketing and HR work together. One example: The team from Zoe’s Kitchen is creating bridges between departments. They understand that a restaurant’s brand isn’t built by a marketing team at the corporate office — it’s built every day by front-line employees. “The marketing director has little impact on brand perception,” said Zoe’s Kitchen VP of Marketing Rachel Phillips-Luther. “People do. So much of how customers are treated stems from how employees are treated.” As a result, the Zoe’s Kitchen leadership focuses on people first. Brand comes as a result of that focus on employees. Zoe’s Kitchen leaders even created a new job position that merges HR and marketing. That employee has the fun responsibility of celebrating daily accomplishments and big events in employees’ lives.

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Zoe’s Kitchen helps employees connect with each other through an online platform where every employee can share ideas, learn about company news, and watch or contribute to the employee-generated content that makes up the company’s training program. “So often, there are a million great ideas in a company, but they don’t live in the corporate office — they live in the people who are on the front lines,” said Phillips-Luther. The company’s online platform connects employees so that, for example, a dishwasher in one restaurant can give the marketing team music suggestions and then hear those songs quickly on the restaurant playlist.

Every marketing campaign starts with the employees, too. When the marketing team wanted to roll out a new promotion, they went to the employees first, holding an employee contest that challenged workers to create the best video for the promotion. These contests help employees understand that it’s their brand.

Jonathan Wolske from Zappos also understands the connection between employees’ happiness and a brand’s strength. In his presentation on the now-famous Zappos culture, he emphasized that culture and brand are two sides of the same coin.

Restaurants are focusing on service.

salvation armyIf there’s one overarching theme at Summer Brand Camp, it’s service. Throughout the week, campers were encouraged to contribute to No Kid Hungry. The fundraising was matched by sponsors like Tyson Foods and Snag A Job, and resulted in a total of $31,000 dollars raised. This was not a mega-conference with thousands of attendees. That kind of fundraising over a few days from a fairly small group is impressive. I’d love to see every conference I attend add a service-focused element like I experienced at Summer Brand Camp.

We also spent the first morning of Summer Brand Camp volunteering as a group at a local Salvation Army community center. Two buses full of campers showed up to help the center’s small staff tackle big projects like painting a huge portion of the building’s interior walls, overhauling a garden area, and many other smaller tasks. The impact of a united group of volunteers working together was impressive. I also learned that there’s no better way to get to know complete strangers than sweating together in matching t-shirts for a good cause.

Restaurants are creating tribes.

I loved hearing from the smart, creative industry leaders who are building communities — both within their companies and among their customers.

The Applebee’s and BTC teams shared how they’re building a large and vocal community of Applebee’s fans on social media. When the team first started on social media, their goal was to “be the biggest fan of our fans.” Through creative contests, surprise fan shout-outs and what the team calls “OMG moments,” they’re building a large and vocal community online. And they’re not just pushing out messages — they’re listening, too. Customers are constantly sharing information about how they perceive brands, and it’s up to community managers (like the Applebee’s social team) to listen and bring that information back to the company.
Thanks, Summer Brand Camp, for an inspiring week!