In past columns, I have expressed both my disdain for most discounting at fast-casual restaurants and my general pessimism regarding the state of the U.S. economy. I have not changed my views on either subject in recent months. We are in for a slow and rocky recovery, and discounting can cause permanent damage to your brand. I have always been a bigger fan of long-term relationship and brand building. Many of the traditional marketing approaches won’t work now on a long-term basis. However, the tried and true approach of community involvement will pay off now more than ever.

First of all, here are some things that won’t work. My friends in marketing won’t like this analysis, but many traditional marketing methods will not work now. Except when opening a new store or promoting a new menu, print advertising won’t help and is a waste of money (QSR is a notable exception). In addition, the dinosaur of direct mail is in its last days and is quickly being replaced by more cost-effective e-mail and social media methods.

However, even e-mail marketing is in a transition phase as mobile devices take over and younger generations spend more time sending messages via text and social networks.  Apps and services like Groupon and Living Social may be hip and cool now, but many people who buy these deals are addicted to the deal, not the provider. This does little for long-term brand building. 

I don’t want to be the guy who just whines about the economy and knocks possible approaches without providing solutions, so here are some community- and school-based marketing ideas that will work well during the continued recession or recovery. 

Unlike the federal government, our state and local governments cannot maintain deficit spending. Large revenue shortfalls have led to cuts in education funding. Even private schools are facing hard times with declining enrollments, and many parents are unable to donate cash because of their own financial situations. Our industry can come to the rescue.

Like politics, most dining out is local, as people tend to stay within their neighborhoods or neighboring communities. Discounts and promotions may come and go, but virtually everyone is connected for life to their local schools as they either have kids in a local school or went to one themselves. 

Giving back to or linking yourself with schools is both the right thing to do and a simple, profitable way to build business. This approach can work for either independents or franchisees. You can make sure that you are seen as the neighborhood franchisee instead of just another faceless location of a huge corporation. People want to be connected most with other people they know. In a similar approach, Raising Cane’s has been promoting its local operators by putting their pictures and names on billboards.

This is not a new or revolutionary idea, but the simplest way to do this is by creating a promotion with local schools where you give a percentage of your sales from a day to a local private or public institution. This is a living example of a win-win situation. You can build your sales on a traditionally slow sales day while helping your community and building good will. 

In return for your future donation, you communicate clearly that it is the school and PTA’s responsibility to promote the event. The more they get people in the door, the more money they get. I would suggest donating a substantial enough percentage of sales (20 percent or greater) so they see the impact. I would avoid more complicated methods, like donating based on the number of an item sold. Try to make the calculations as easy as possible and the payoff large. People are more stressed out than ever and even more stretched time-wise, but this promotion makes things easy for them. Traditional school fundraising methods are labor and time intensive (for example, fairs). All they have to do here is promote the event and get people in the door.

Just like everything else in our business, execution is key. Plan this event out well ahead of time, so that parents and schools have time to promote it and you get it in traditional communication tools like newsletters. 

Encourage parents to promote the event on their personal and school Facebook and Twitter accounts so that you get the benefit of possible viral promotion.

Follow up closer to the day with additional contact (and possibly fliers) with the PTA and school. In fact, give them a marketing plan or suggestions on promotion ideas. In this document, get them to encourage parents to promote the event on their personal and school Facebook and Twitter accounts so that you get the benefit of possible viral promotion that didn’t exist even a few years ago. 

I don’t advocate marketing directly to kids, but an added benefit is that kids today are as attached to their schools as you were, but they now spend many hours texting each other, so they will probably wind up being a promotional force. Social media gives old-style school marketing a much bigger punch than before.

In addition, add some competition and make things fun. A five- or six-week contest where a different school gets a percentage of sales each Tuesday and the school with the highest sales wins an additional dedicated sales day would be fun. Divide sales by the number of students at each school, and you get a way that small schools can compete fairly with larger schools. Also, make sure to mention that catering orders will be included so working parents can boost sales while feeding their colleagues (giving you a larger revenue boost).

You could even build on an upcoming athletic game by giving each school a day and chance to compete against rivals off the field. Such contests are tailor-made for building good will and getting local press. You get increased business while others do the promotional work and the local school gets money. Everyone wins.

Charitable Giving, Story