Monday, October 8, 2012

New chapter in the marketing handbook?

Regardless of what you sell, don’t miss the splendid marketing battle that’s forming between two giants of casual dining. It’s an education in how the behemoths of a segment can change the competitive dynamics for all players through volume alone. And don’t be surprised if it leaves a lasting influence on the whole industry, just as one of the tactics forever changed the shoe and eyeglass businesses.

The fracas started late last week when Olive Garden forged ahead with a strategy to re-invigorate the don of the casual Italian market. In recent months, the Darden Restaurants brand had struggled as consumers gave more weight to quality, healthfulness and other considerations in their assessments of a dining-out value. Olive Garden decided that it had to be more things to more people, instead of just targeting bargain-hunters.

The result was a passel of new initiatives trumpeted through the chain’s first new ad campaign in a decade. Themed Go Olive Garden, the program addresses splinters of the market that the brand might have drifted away, like the health-conscious, or the more sophisticated wine drinker.

But it didn’t forget the value-sensitive patrons who made the chain such a stellar success. They were informed of a new limited-time deal that sounds conspicuously like the one arch-rival Maggiano’s has been offering for three years: Buy an entrée from a certain section of the menu and you can choose a second selection at no extra cost to take home. The price of the Dinner Today & Dinner Tomorrow promo: $12.95.

Just as the ads for the limited-time offer started to air, Maggiano’s countered with a noteworthy twist to its two-for-one, dine in/take-home deal. For a limited time, the Brinker International chain will provide a third meal to a charity for every two-for-one Classic Pasta dish that’s purchased. The offer will run until 1 million meals have been given away, Maggiano’s explained.

The new age BOGO—Buy One, Give One—was the point of differentiation that turned the online retailer TOMS Shoes into a major force in the footwear business. So many consumers warmed to the idea of doing good while buying a pair of loafers that other shoe sellers had to copy the idea.

TOMS has since branched into the eyeglass business, taking its One for One slogan with it. It has company there in Warby Parker, an online retailer that similarly donates a pair of frames for every set that’s sold. If the popularity of those glasses within our offices are any indication, the strategy has been a slam-dunk.

Which leaves us with several important questions for restaurants: Will buy one/take one become a new standard for broad-market Italian chains—the ante they’ll have to absorb if they want to compete with Olive Garden, Maggiano’s, and whatever other national chains follow suit?

And what about the buy one/donate one tactic? Will that proven draw be the next two-entrees-for-$20 deal for casual chains? And why wouldn’t the same offer work for virtually any restaurant?

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