The absolutely huge restaurant brands, the ones that everyone has heard of—what are the secrets to their success?

I don’t have all the answers, but I know one thing—they don’t skimp on the marketing. Starbucks, the 800-lb gorilla of the coffee world, spent over $260 million in advertising in 2018.

Now, I’m not asking you to spend the GDP of a small country on your marketing efforts. But just because you may not be doing Taco Bell numbers (yet), that doesn’t mean that there’s nothing you can learn from them.

I’ve broken down some of the top tricks from the best in the business, so you can apply what works to your own restaurant.

So let’s start marketing like the big boys.

1. Offer a loyalty program like Starbucks

We already know that it costs a lot more to get a new customer than to keep an existing one—up to five times more. So the big brands know that they need to work hard to keep people coming back.

What does that mean for you? Start a loyalty program.

A full 50 percent of smartphone users report using at least one branded loyalty app. And 77 percent say a loyalty program will make them stay with a business longer.

Think about it—where are you going to go for coffee?

The place that charges you the same amount every time?

Or the place that lets you earn points toward free coffee and snacks?

Seems like a no-brainer to me—and it was a no-brainer to Starbucks as well.

Starbucks’ loyalty app lets users accumulate points for every dollar they spend, which they can then redeem for food and drinks. It also provides them early access to new products and lets them place orders remotely that they can then pick up without a wait.

If you’re ready to reward your customers’ loyalty, you don’t have to get a custom-built app at a cost of thousands of dollars.

Many POS systems (including Square, Toast, and Revel) already have the functionality to offer a loyalty program.

And if yours doesn’t, there are third-party companies out there that can set one up for you at an affordable price. Check out ReUp, Belly, or Upserve.

2. Encourage user-generated content like Chick-Fil-A

People are growing increasingly wary of being “advertised” to. They want an authentic connection with the brands that they support.

That’s why user-generated content (UGC) on social media is so effective.

Instead of posting posed images with models and plastic food, top brands are simply re-posting their customers’ social media content. The happy customers and the food they’re eating is real, and people really respond to it.

In fact, 79 percent of people say that UGC has an impact on their purchasing decisions.

And why?

Because people like to do what other people are doing. The more customer photos they see at a certain restaurant, the more appealing that restaurant becomes.

Just look at Chick-Fil-A. They post UGC regularly.

It’s personable, friendly, and it often gets more likes and comments than their own original content.

If your customers aren’t creating as much content as you’d like, give them some encouragement. Create a special branded hashtag and post it somewhere in your restaurant, asking visitors to use it when they post.

Or you can run a contest on social media. Ask your followers to post using a certain hashtag or your geotag to get entered into a giveaway.

Before you repost UGC, make sure that the image is portraying your restaurant in the right way. You don’t want to use a photo if the food doesn’t look good, or if the image is too dark.

And the best part—it’s 100 percent free. Just ask the original poster for permission, and always give them photo credit.

3. Give back like IHOP

Businesses should always give back to their communities when they can. It’s the right thing to do.

But it’s also a great idea from a marketing perspective. Supporting a cause or charity in your area builds community and shows people that you care.

For example, IHOP offered $1 short stacks of pancakes on May 21, with all proceeds going to Fallen Patriots. This charity provides college funding for the children of fallen soldiers.

They were able to support a wonderful cause, while also building their goodwill.

Fortunately, as a restauranteur, you already have something people need—food. Your restaurant could provide meals for a local shelter, VFA, or Ronald McDonald house.

Or, see if there are any larger food festivals going on around town with a donation angle that you could join. For example, the New York City Wine and Food Festival in 2019 will support the New York Food Bank and the No Kid Hungry campaign.

Another option—many cities do a local restaurant week with a charity partner. Participation will support the charity and get your restaurant’s name out in front of thousands of local diners.

4. Keep it fun on social media like Taco Bell and Wendy’s

Presenting a youthful, authentic voice has been a winning strategy for top brands like Taco Bell and Wendy’s. These two are the undisputed champs of the Twittersphere, spreading memes, jokes, and more than a little snark.

Both brands do standard promotional posts, advertising new or seasonal products. But it’s the fun bits that keep people coming back.

Wendy’s is always on top of the new lingo and memes.

For example, the phrase “hot girl summer” started trending in early July.  By July 10, they had already used it in a tweet.

They reference pop culture like Game of Thrones, update the menu when they get enough retweets, and even roast customers.

And they’re not scared to play a little rough with the competition. They are famous for their beef with McDonald’s, and their followers love it.

Taco Bell’s brand voice is a little less sassy.

Where they stand out is their involvement with their followers. Taco Bell loves to comment and retweet, getting their customers involved in the fun.

Clearly, you don’t have to adopt this kind of banter with your customers. You should be authentically you, not falsely Wendy’s.

But social media can be fun. And there’s always room for a joke or two, even for an upscale restaurant.

Even fine dining can loosen up a little. Morton’s The Steakhouse found a way to have fun with this post about fresh oysters while still staying true to their brand.

5. Love the doggos like Shake Shack

For many, dogs are members of the family. That’s why Shake Shack has positioned themselves as the dog-friendly burger joint.

They have a special dog menu featuring baked dog biscuits and the Pooch-ini—dog biscuits and vanilla custard.

They highlight their dog-friendliness by reposting user photos of the cutest dogs at their restaurants. (Harnessing the power of No. 2: Encourage User-Generated Content).

And they recently partnered with Bark to create Shake Shack-themed dog chew toys.

By sharing our love for our dogs, Shake Shack has proven to be relatable and sympathetic. Their special treats and toys (plus the chance to get your fur-baby featured on an Instagram account with over 600,000 followers) has helped create an almost cultish devotion to the burger chain.

And it’s a restaurant promotion idea that’s worked financially as well. Shake Shack expects to grow to $700 million in revenue by 2020.

Pretty good for a company that started out as a hot dog cart less than 20 years ago.

6. Adopt a cohesive theme on Instagram like Cha Cha Matcha

Okay, so unless you live in New York or LA, you may not have heard about this matcha shop.

But their Instagram feed is so good that I wanted to share it.

They have gone all-in on their pink and green color scheme.

It makes sense—matcha is their specialty, and it’s already a beautiful soft green. They contrast the green with plenty of bubblegum pink for an eye-popping color combo.

The colors are fresh, and it makes their whole feed a cheerful place to be.

Using a cohesive theme throughout your Instagram feed catches people’s attention immediately. A sea of one color or two colors is naturally more striking than a blend of many.

Having your own consistent visual style makes you instantly recognizable. Other brands that have mastered their “look” on Instagram?

  • McDonald’s (bright and cheerful)
  • Sweatshop in NYC (clean and modern)
  • Taco Bell (vibrant and youthful)

Of course, the theme is only one part of what makes Cha Cha Matcha’s Instagram so successful. They also use geotags, user-generated content, and lots of video.

One thing they don’t use is hashtags, which is something that most guides to Instagram recommend. If you’re trying to build your following, I still suggest you use hashtags to increase your reach.

7. Keep your website fast and simple like True Food Kitchen

What’s the No. 1 reason that people abandon your website?

It’s not bad photography. It’s not weak copy.

It’s a slow site.

Forty percent of people will leave your website if it doesn’t load in less than 3 seconds.

There can be a lot of reasons why you’re facing a slow site speed. It could be too many large photo and video files, or it could be too many bulky plugins.

But if it takes too long to load, you risk losing potential customers before they even get a chance to see what you’re all about.

It’s vital to make sure your site is quick and nimble. Tools like Google’s PageSpeed Insights can help you to determine if you have a problem.

Another important factor? How easy your site is to navigate.

This is actually easier for the little guys. Large chains have to have Locations pages, Careers pages, Nutrition Info pages…they may even need to offer the website in multiple languages.

But you can keep it simple, like True Food Kitchen. Everything a customer needs is in one simple menu bar at the top, including Call-to-Action boxes for reservations or placing an order.

Keep it simple, keep it speedy.


There you have it. 7 secrets of the pros—and you don’t need to spend $260 million to try them.

In fact, you can use most of these tips for free.

You don’t have to start working on all seven of these tips right away. Instead, I encourage you to start with one—but make sure you start.

Reach out to your POS provider about a loyalty program today. Or talk to your chef about adding a dog treat to the menu the next time you see him or her.

There is no time like the present to start promoting your restaurant like the experts. So which marketing secret are you going to start with?

Adam Guild is a top expert on restaurant marketing. He is also the CEO of Placepull: a technology company that helps restaurants increase revenue by an average of over $207,000 per location using search. 

Marketing & Promotions, Outside Insights, Story, Shake Shack, Starbucks, Taco Bell, Wendy's