In a category where authenticity is held above all else, some Italian brands are pushing the envelope with zany marketing campaigns.

Free weddings, baby gender–reveal lasagnas, and breadstick bouquets are all part of a growing trend in unusual restaurant marketing ideas. These promotions are great at grabbing consumer attention, but do they actually translate into better business?

Last year, Villa Italian Kitchen introduced the world to pizza bouquets and boutonnieres. This year, Villa added the world’s first gender-reveal lasagna to its catering offerings. The package includes a cheese lasagna (with secret pink or blue interior), garlic rolls, and a salad. It was a seemingly crazy idea and was, accordingly, met with mixed reactions online.

“People want to be entertained and amused,” says Las Vegas–based marketing consultant Eric Gladstone. He suggests restaurants look at what’s tried-and-true—and then turn their backs on it. “Take something out of the realm of normal expectations,” he says.

Scrolling through social media posts can drum up a lot of inspiration for unusual promotions. Gladstone recommends researching online to see what people are excited about and what’s trending. From there, operators can figure out how to put their own spin on it.

To celebrate Valentine’s Day this year, Olive Garden offered customers a breadstick bouquet. Meanwhile, D.C.-based &pizza has hosted free wedding ceremonies every Pi Day (March 14) for the past three years.

Jami Yanoski, owner of Y Marketing in Loveland, Colorado, says that inspiration can be found everywhere. “Pay attention to what’s going on around you. Research other restaurants online; listen to podcasts; change your scenery and visit places you haven’t been; pick up a local paper or magazine; do anything that will get you out of your space,” she says. “I’m amazed at the things I can find on Pinterest; a generic image or post might spark a whole other idea.”

Stay true to branding

Running a crazy promotion can be fun and exciting, but before diving headfirst into what could result in the ultimate fail, Gladstone reminds restaurateurs to consider how consumers perceive their brand and to be consistent in their marketing. “If you’re not already known as the brand that runs crazy promotions, be careful,” he warns.

Yanoski has a similar opinion and says brands shouldn’t be too quick to jump on the bandwagon without personalizing their message. “If you see a good idea somewhere, borrow the idea, but put your own twist on it that’s more in line with your business, values, menu, and audience,” she says. “Listen to your customers; are they telling you things or making suggestions that you aren’t listening to?”

Get the word out

During the promotion planning phase, Gladstone suggests taking a multipronged approach to spreading the news. “Don’t rely on one method to tell your story,” he says. “Always have a plan B.” He adds that conventional media won’t be interested in everything, so operators should be ready with a plan to utilize social media, social influencers, YouTube, and more.

“Take something out of the realm of normal expectations.”

If you have a loyalty program and/or newsletter, Yanoski says to use it. “Send customers—both dine-in and take-out—home with information on paper about upcoming specials, date nights and new menu items,” she says, adding that take-and-bake Papa Murphy’s is especially adept at utilizing both paper and digital newsletters.

On social media platforms like Instagram and Twitter, restaurants can time promotions to coincide with special occasions. The National Day Calendar has a date for just about every food in existence. To wit, Cheese Day is June 4, Pasta Day is October 17, and National Espresso Day is November 23. In 2017, tiramisu even clinched its own day. Nevertheless, the success of these tie-ins, no matter how timely and clever, ultimately comes down to the consumer.

“Again, know your customers. If your audience is not using social media like Instagram, limit your social exposure and utilize e-mail newsletters or postcards instead,” Yanoski says.

Recognize a Failing Promo

When experimenting with unusual or “crazy” promotions, operators should bear in mind that not all of them will be successful.

 “Pay attention to feedback, comments, and body language when creating the idea; if colleagues aren’t onboard and aren’t expressing their concerns, these are subtle clues,” Yanoski says. Social media has ways of alerting you to a bad promotion as well. “We’re always measuring likes, shares and comments,” she says. “You know pretty quickly with social media if something is not working.”

Feature, Sapore