Restaurants leaders know that they live and die by whether or not guests enjoy their food, but great flavor alone is not enough to keep guests coming back for more. Menus must appeal to diners, but customers must also feel comfortable in the physical space of a restaurant if they will return. Even when food is spectacular, if customers are uncomfortable, find a restaurant’s décor unappealing, or feel bored inside the store, that concept may not earn another visit.
“The visual experience is a really a major component of the overall customer experience,” says Tom Cook, the principal of King-Casey, a restaurant consulting, branding, and design firm. “It can have a huge neutral, positive, or a negative impact.”
Because consumers have so many options in a crowded restaurant market, they don’t have to settle to get both the food and the ambiance they want. Further compounding the problem is that in today’s world of online reviews, every element from the wall art to the color of tablecloths is fair game for critique, and a bad experience for one person could keep others from trying a restaurant.
“Everyone is being challenged to step up their game to create an atmosphere that is more personal, engaging, and consistent across the board,” says Brian Elles, director of product marketing of visual solutions for Mood Media. “By default, hyper-connected consumers have become hyper-sensitive to all components that contribute to the total customer experience. Missteps are magnified, so everyone has to step up their game.”
Technology also adds new challenges, too. Consumers are no longer satisfied with low-tech brands. They also want full-service restaurants to interact with them digitally, including everything from social media and entertainment to signage and messaging. Brands that fail to connect digitally risk falling behind competition.
“When dining in restaurants, consumers now expect an atmosphere that shows that the brand is up-to-date with the times,” Elles says. “As brands are adopting mobile and digital strategies, we’re seeing more and more brands carry that through to the visual experience in-store.”
It’s important to note that simply having digital content is not enough. This technology must be integrated effectively, not only to maximize impact, but also so that it doesn’t end up distracting guests and detracting from the brand experience. For example, Cook says that placing too many digital signs with too many moving messages within the space can overwhelm customers and lead to inefficiencies, such as guests being slow to give servers orders.
But placement is also important, Elles says, and it’s critical to have a clear plan for digital. "Screen placement and the corresponding content strategy for each screen are critical,” he says. “Consider the traffic patterns inside the store, how long customers stay at each touch point, and what they see when they are there. This will impact content type, the cadence of the playlist, how long certain pieces of content are displayed, and so on."
Another consideration is what is broadcasted on the screens. Though many casual full-service brands display television programs in their restaurants, control is critical. When restaurants air standard television stations, they risk showing customers off-putting—and sometimes unappetizing—messages or even competitor ads.
“The news isn’t always so pleasant, and customers definitely have stronger opinions about the source of their news,” Elles says. “Other programming may be inappropriate for kids, but falling back on television programs that are safe isn’t the best use of that valuable screen real estate. The concerns become, ‘What do I do about my competitors commercials?’ and, ‘How can I achieve better control over what my customers see and leverage that to my advantage in creating a stronger visual experience that also impacts my bottom line.’”
With the right control, however, video is a powerful tool that enhances a brand’s visual appeal. While regular programming may not always be the right fit for a concept, restaurants can capitalize on this digital space with branded content that not only keeps messaging consistent and advertises the brand, but that also adds value to the guests’ dining experience.
“Video can be put to better use in restaurants if they have brand content,” Cook says. “It doesn’t have to be hard sell; it can be more informative—a softer, subtler sell.”
Though some brands may have been reluctant to engage in digital signage and video due to the perception high cost or fear that digital content will strain their networks and create more work for management, this is no longer the case. In fact, digital technology makes it easier and more cost effective than ever to provide these visual enhancements.
“The most common misperceptions are that digital signage is expensive, difficult, and time consuming to manage,” Elles says. “Screens and software are very affordable, and most content management platforms are extremely intuitive and user-friendly.”
Prices for both displays and content curation services have dropped in recent years, and brand partners now offer plug and play libraries of that eliminate the stress of selecting and maintaining content. Additionally, because investing in customer engagement can improve guest loyalty, these programs offer strong ROIs to offset the initial costs of installing such media.
In an age where every aspect of the dining experience is not only critiqued by customers, but these perceptions are also shared publicly, it’s crucial for restaurants to get their visual environment right, Elles says. “Operators should consider the value of creating an appealing visual experience that makes customers feel comfortable and want to come back again and again.”