(What happened after hours, just happened after hours.)

Last week I attended the National Restaurant Association’s Marketing Executives Group (MEG) conference in Chicago. This is a list of the Top 10 Winners & 1 Hmmm at MEG this year. If you were absent, please contact your MEG friends to catch up on the scoop (as you really missed a big MEG). If you were there, here is a chance to remember the events again. Restaurant Marketing Group (a division of ZenMango) does not endorse any of the speakers (yet) and the Top 10 list is only based on active listening during the minutes I was not dozing. Here are my Top 10 Winners & 1 Hmmm.

Neil Golden took us through the amazing journey of turning McDonald’s around. As I listened I was fascinated by the simplicity of his “going back to the basics” and “customer first” approach. At times, I felt that I could tune-out Neil since the McDonald’s story felt slightly irrelevant as most of us will never get to a budget that has that many ‘0s. What struck me, however, was that it is not easy to change the direction of a brand that big and that established. And he did. Huge accomplishment! Maybe it is the restaurant’s version of The Greatest Story Ever Told.  It also helped me realize why McDonald’s continues to have one of the lowest leaks in the business. (Source: Leaky Bucket® 2009 Study)

I was really looking forward to Nancy Bailey’s presentation as I thought it would surely need volunteers to drink and sample. Maybe a few shots just before lunch, not a bad new MEG tradition. Instead the presentation turned out to be a learning on brand amplification: how to take a brand and make it crossover to the grocery aisle and beyond. Her presentation on brand extension was simply amazing, especially when I feel that one of the biggest weaknesses of restaurateurs is merchandising. Yes, I learned a lot, but I missed out on the free shots.

I guess it took an articulate
Harvard Professor, with a tad bit of attitude (that is a compliment coming from the MEG group), to realize that it is all about the expectations Marketing sets and Operations fulfilling those expectations. But Professor Frei, two hours and thirty-six minutes before you wowed us, someone left the teaser cards on the tables about Marperations.  And Professor Frei, here is a suggestion for your next presentation. Get a big blender and then… 

Mike of Darden may not be sitting on a hill as big as Neil Golden of McDonald’s, but he is still sitting on a hill with some decent resources. He showed us that once you become big (I mean really big), you must find brand ambassadors who can talk to the brand. His brand ambassadors are real customers who are passionate about the brand. Instead of Mike and team trying to fake-talk to the consumer, they have found the die-hard fans and trusted them to carry on the conversation. My interpretation of Mike’s message: if you cannot do it yourself, find a consultant and delegate

Before Joe the plumber, we at MEG have always have had our Randy the plumber.  Randy of G&M Plumbing, a restaurant industry veteran and now a break-thru media messenger, showed us that true creative writing (along with a diet of beer, wine and cocktails in all four meals) makes even blah news read worthy. He impressed me with his creatively focused story telling. Did you know Randy can get his phone calls through to any CEO, as every high functioning officer is still interested in insuring their plumbing still works? Based on Randy’s inspiration we are thinking of changing our company’s name ZenMango Preg Testing. Now I dare you to refuse that call.

George from BlendTec should be called Houdini for his act of blending a rake. His “Will it Blend” campaign started with a $50 marketing budget, an amazing example of a creative way of communicating a benefit and letting the consumer figure out the rest. If you missed the videos, please go to www.willitblend.com. As I watched him rake in the applause, I realized that he was telling us that when the economy is down, you do not have to have a garage sale. Instead, blend in everything you have in the garage to feed the kids. Here is a hint for MEG teams who feel that their current marketing team is not being creative: simply give them a $50 budget and a sharp object. Magic is imminent.

Stacey of California Tortilla was the perfect complement to Mike of Darden. Stacey has very limited resources and her world of “over-sharing” was an excellent example of being irreverent when that is what your brand is. She gave us a sneak peak of her upcoming “Get a tattoo on your butt and get a free burrito” campaign. It was amazing to see the line of potential volunteers who offered to assist her judge the contest. Pick me! Pick me!

Greg Rapp’s inspired presentation on menu engineering was proven, yet kinda one-dimensional as it focused primarily on profitability. But it got us back bencher’s to think, and we came up with a model we feel menu engineering should also look at: (actual sketch is attached.)
Lane Cardwell and I realized that designing for profitability is great when you have to score a touchdown to get ahead in a game. But in a world where you are playing for a two point conversion followed by an on-side conversion to survive, “what will drive repeat” is also a timely and relevant measure for menu engineering.

George from BlendTec showed us that in traditional medium, content is provided by the content-provider (TV show, news, or radio program). We advertisers are the content interrupter. In the world of social media, the onus is on us to be the content provider and not be an interrupter.  Now that is big. Late night, MEG attendees were trickling back into the hotel singing the song “I want to be the content”.  Thanks George!

We all know that the only thing marketing budgets and dinosaurs have in common is extinction.  Saturday morning Clint and I walked through the National Restaurant Show after MEG, and trinkets were simply absent. (I am not counting leftovers from 2008, where 8 were scratched off and 9 were written next to it, nor the sole yo-yo we found after an hour of searching). In that world of nothings, the MEG team pulled off an amazing show.  To me it was a clear example that it is not the food or the free booze, it is not just the networking, but it is the heart of MEG that makes us comes back.

National Restaurant Association revealed its upcoming promotion to drive more restaurant visits.  As it is a secret (for now), I cannot talk about what it is, but here is what it made me feel as a customer: I realized (based on the ad) that I am still a good person as a lot of people are not eating out. I am not alone. I do not feel guilty anymore, and I don’t have to take my family out to eat. The ad to me simply reconfirmed that it is okay to be at home and not eat out. With all the amazing talent at MEG and other restaurant companies, I cannot help but ask… Why did the National Restaurant Association not reach out to the restaurant marketers? I am sure a panel of MEG-ees, over a few bottles of wine, would have certainly made a traffic driving ad.