They say a picture paints a thousand words. But it can also tempt the appetites of millions of hungry customers, which is why quick-serve restaurants spend a great deal of time, money, and effort to ensure their menuboards and promotional materials have images that resonate with their customers.
When it comes to choosing photos to represent a brand on a menuboard, one of the most important elements is to have pictures that display the food’s authenticity, experts say.
“We want our food photography to be as craveable as the food we serve, so during photo shoots, we insist on using the same high-quality ingredients and portion sizes that we serve in our restaurants,” says Rob Poetsch, Taco Bell’s director of public affairs and engagement.
Working with professional food photographers who have an understanding of the needs of a quick-service brand can help executives ensure they get the most out of their menuboard and promotional artwork. Many of these artists like to take a personalized approach with individual clients.
Brandon Voges, a food photographer and partner at Bruton Stroube Studios in St. Louis who has worked with brands like McDonald’s, Sonic, and Pizza Hut, says a customized approach is key for quick serves to get the most out of food photography.
“One brand might want more comfortable food, another might want something higher-end; every brand has a different desire for how they want to be perceived,” he says. Often, that perception is shaped by how the food images will be used, be that print advertising or a menuboard.
While working with Pizza Hut on a recent campaign, Voges says, he was asked to capture a “lifestyle feel” and accomplished this by focusing more on the people and the moment than the food itself. But when Voges worked with drive-in brand Sonic, the chain needed work that highlighted its food and diverse beverage options on menuboards.
“It’s always about showing the delicious food, but doing it in a way that works for the brand,” Voges says. “Every [quick serve] has [its] own specific food story they are trying to tell, and it’s up to us to frame it up and move the brand forward.”
For quick-serve brand Pancheros, as with Taco Bell, making its food look as appetizing as possible is key. But while food styling can result in mouthwatering images, it’s important that photos never mislead consumers, says Reid Travis, marketing director of Iowa-based Pancheros.
“We prepare all of our food in-house and hand-cut all our own steaks to make sure they are trimmed properly. We want our photos to represent the freshness of the Pancheros brand and experience,” he says.
When it comes to capturing the perfect shot for a restaurant, relevancy is just as important as beauty, says Jeff Kauck, a Chicago-based food photographer who has been shooting for quick-serve brands for nearly 30 years.
“For it to be relevant, I need to sit down with the brand and understand what it is they want to say with their images,” he says.
Kauck communicates his ideas with brand executives, but he knows his job is ultimately to get across whatever it is that is most important to them. “It’s all about a clarity of communication. To make sure that if this particular restaurant is trying to get away form a commercial look and wants a more approachable look, it’s important that it feels comfortable,” he says.
Brands’ philosophies—as well as those behind their products—change all the time, which is why new photos are always being taken. Trends can also dictate a photo, Kauck says. For example, a big message many quick serves want to get across concerns their lower-sodium or gluten-free options. Communicating that in a photo, though, can be tricky.
“Of course, some things are supported by copy, but you try to shoot photos that give a more healthful look,” Kauck says. “It’s a much more soft and gentle editorial feel. Any message can be told with photos if shot the right way.”
Brands that come to a food photographer with clear ideas of what they want, who they are, and who their competition is often get the most bang for their buck, Kauck adds. The initial consultation can be just as important as what happens during a photo shoot, especially if the artwork will be used to launch a new menu item or platform.
“In our initial meeting with a client, they bring us a list of specs, and we discuss ways to make their menuboard sing,” Voges says.
Kauck considers the product and the daypart it will be sold in to determine the best way to light and capture the appeal. For example, he says, breakfast menu items can communicate that fresh morning start with soft lighting. Premium menu items can communicate an elevated dining experience when shot with lighting that has edge and depth, he adds.
The level of thought and work that goes into food photography isn’t just for in-store use and print advertising: More quick-serve brands must take into account how they visually present their food and experience through social media.
“Consumers are becoming more and more mobile-minded and are constantly on the go, so relatable images and statements less than 140 characters are helpful in establishing connections quickly,” Taco Bell’s Poetsch says.
With photo-driven social media sites like Instagram and Pinterest attracting millions of users each day, plus Facebook and Twitter, brands have an opportunity to present what may look like candid images, but which are as carefully crafted as any promotional work.
“Food has shifted from fuel to an experience, and our fans frequently use Twitter and Instagram to share photos of menu items,” Poetsch says.
Travis says Pancheros notices three types of photos taken and posted to social media: photos of burritos, photos of people with burritos, and photos of people with brand packaging or in the restaurant, capturing what he calls “brand elements.”
Sometimes a brand may ask a professional food photographer to take more candid photos for its website and social media platforms, but Voges warns it’s a fine line with taking photos that might not look professional but are still authentic and meet the brand guidelines.
“Consumers are so much more savvy today, and you have to be careful in those situations, because consumers don’t want to feel tricked,” he says. “When you do it right, it’s amazing and speaks to consumers in a different voice that’s easier to digest in a certain way. It’s a challenge for a photographer.”