Building an inviting atmosphere is crucial to restaurant success.

With so many restaurant options available to consumers, brands have to find ways to stand out in order to draw in traffic. Add to that the pressure of intense social media scrutiny, and restaurants can’t afford to slip up anywhere. This makes it critical for owners and operators to pay close attention to the total brand experience. Though food is the star of a restaurant, everything from music to lighting and scent creates the ambiance of a restaurant and can determine whether or not consumers return.

“A growing number of customer segments have found appreciation for brands who take the time to get the details right—and in turn, they are becoming more and more loyal,” says Joe Haubenhofer, Sir Idea Man—yes, that’s his real title— at The Plaid Penguin Agency, which offers design, strategy, branding, and marketing services to the food and beverage industry.

Because customer satisfaction is influenced by so many aspects of the restaurant environment, it can be difficult for operators to ensure that the restaurant experience lives up to customer expectations. One strategy that can make this seemingly impossible task more manageable is by focusing on the five senses and the newer sixth sense—social media.

“Atmosphere is mission critical,” Haubenhofer says. “When done properly, guests’ five senses should be stimulated by a multi-layered harmonic chord, which should lead to an orchestrated 360-degree experience for the guest.”

Here are a few ways operators can capitalize on each of the senses to have the biggest impact.

1. Taste

For a restaurant, taste is an obvious consideration, since food flavors are one of the key elements of a brand. Offering items that are unique in the restaurant’s market can set a restaurant apart and keep customers craving more.

Haubenhofer notes that while taste is vital, it’s important not to get so caught up in taste that other elements are forgotten. “As the old saying goes, we eat with our eyes—and nose—before our mouths,” he says.

2. Sight

Visual cues can be some of the first clues customers get about what they should expect from a brand. Everything from color and graphics to lighting can impact the way a restaurant is perceived. A poorly lit restaurant, for example, can send the message that it is dingy or unappealing. An overly bright restaurant can be overwhelming.

Integrating effective visual messaging is also critical to capturing the right tone for a restaurant. Eye-catching graphics not only tie a space together for guests, but can also help drive sales.

“Restaurants are discovering the incredible power of digital signage,” says Brian Elles, director of visual solutions at Mood Media. “In addition to digital menuboard applications, the ability to maintain complete control over visual content creates a world of opportunity. Create a more engaging visual experience with pre-programmed content, promo screens and other alternatives to traditional décor, static signage and television.”

Hauberhofer says restaurants should also focus on entryways; staff uniforms, which should be delineated by job duties; and plating. Though these elements may seem to have a less obvious impact on a brand than food taste, for example, they are highly influential to guest satisfaction.

3. Sound

Similarly, sound also has a big impact on customer satisfaction. Choosing the right audio environment can make a big difference in brand experience. Music can set the tone of a restaurant and help drive sales.

“Music reflects your brand personality and establishes energy,” says Danny Turner, global senior vice president of creative programming at Mood Media. “The energy you’re looking for can change throughout the day and on certain days of the week, so it’s important to think about how your music should change with various dayparts. Once you tap into the appropriate energy level, you begin really dialing into the experience you’re trying to create. How do you want your customers to feel when they interact with your brand? Subtle changes can certainly have a meaningful impact on sales, all while building on a core music identity that captures who you are.”

Other key elements of the audio experience are the restaurant’s sounds. If a location is too loud and patrons can’t talk to their friends, they won’t enjoy the dining experience.

Haubenhofer notes that it’s also important to think about how other sounds can impact guests. “Think about the acoustics from the kitchen and how it sounds in various dining nooks,” he says.

4. Smell

The smell of delicious foods can impact a diner’s appetite and purchases. Optimizing spaces to let good scents pass through to customers while eliminating the impact of dumpsters and compactors can generate revenue.

“Consider open kitchens,” Haubenhofer says. “Take it a step further, and in larger spaces, consider scent marketing efforts and buy creative custom scents.”

5. Touch

Ensuring that every element a guest touches is both intriguing and comforting can help consumers build personal attachments to a brand.

“Studies show consumers who can touch, feel a sense of ownership,” Haubenhofer says. “Don’t skimp out on the menu paper, toilet paper in the loo, or the feel of linens on the table.”

Cleanliness also impacts the tactile experience of a restaurant. If floors or tables are sticky, customers won’t be comfortable in the space. Proper cleaning is a must to ensure that diners enjoy their experiences and return for more.

6. Bonus Sense: Social

Though social media may not be classified as one of the traditional senses, it is an important sensory element that influences customer decisions. Just like sight or taste, a brand’s social media presence can impact whether a restaurant appeals to consumers or not. Just as it’s critical to get food right or to ensure diners have a clean, welcoming atmosphere, it’s important to carefully manage a brand’s social media presence to send the right message.

Similarly, when brands put thought into how their restaurants will appear in social media, such as Instagram and Snapchat photos, they can positively influence customer perception and draw in younger consumers.

“Similar to a website, the digital footprint, which includes social media, often plays the role as the virtual maître d’,” Haubenhofer says. “This is the first image consumers discover or experience the brand, so it’s important to make an authentic connection.”

In a highly competitive restaurant market, it is critical that restaurant leaders consider how atmosphere influences the brand experience. By considering the five senses and social media, restaurants can quickly become fan favorites, while those that neglect these elements will be left behind.

Haubenhofer notes that getting these elements right can lead to “lifetime ambassadors and feverish fans, but disconnection leads to sporadic engagement.”

“Atmosphere matters,” he says. “Design matters. Details matter. Hire professionals, like branders, interior designers, architects. You can engage these professionals at many different levels and budgets. It’s worth it to get it right the first time. It’s the long-term play and your EBITA—and investors—will thank you.”  

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