Published on October 12, 2023, 4:56 p.m.
by Jillian Middleton.
Communication in the food and beverage industry has taken one of the biggest changes in directions in comparison to most other industries we’ve seen, due in large part to the strategic uses of social media and public relations. Trends like “FoodTok” and at-home chefs have dominated the internet in the last few years, changing the culture of the industry as we know it.
Social media and public relations have proven themselves to play a crucial role in this industry. In a conference paper published in 2021, writer Kanishk Raj Singh noted, “The world of food has been bolstered by the internet with online food communities involved in sharing cooking tips, sharing recipes, ideas on growing food, reviewing food and restaurants in addition to many others.”
Chef Sakari Smithwick, founder of Noble Promise and Smithwick Provisions and co-founder of Noble Promise Studios, learned the importance of social media and PR in this industry firsthand. As a 24-year-old chef, Smithwick had big dreams of opening his first restaurant on the lower east side of New York City with one of his friends. The two were awarded a One Michelin Star for their restaurant, Ukiyo. According to the Michelin Guide, “One Michelin Star is awarded to restaurants using top quality ingredients, where dishes with distinct flavours are prepared to a consistently high standard.”
Shortly after opening, Smithwick had to shut down the restaurant due to its low social media presence. “The people that came in loved it, but there just wasn’t enough presence online,” he explained.
Smithwick realized that there was a world out there that he had yet to explore. Besides being a well-awarded chef, he looked to social media and public relations to further his success in the industry.
But success doesn’t come easy in this industry by just being a talented chef. Christine Susi, director of content at Media Farm Agency, asserted, “What I find is that you can’t find success in the digital world without PR.”
There are a great deal of benefits that have come with the rise of social media and PR strategies within this industry, but there are also many downfalls.
Changing with the times
Restaurants came well before social media. “There was no social media back then. It was, you had to be chosen as the Emeril Lagasse, the Bobby Flay,and you’d get put on Food Network. But you had to get chosen,” explained Smithwick. “Fast forward to now, we’re in a day and age where it’s the complete opposite — anyone can do it; now it’s just if you’re good enough.”
A lot of these restaurant owners come from a different generation with little to no social media experience. Some owners refuse to adapt to the changing times, making it hard for them to understand the importance of having an online presence when it comes to
running a successful business. In a LinkedIn article, Javier Peña, founder/owner at Top Rank Website, explained that for “most small business they either don’t have [social media] presence or they barely invest in it and that’s why they get mediocre results at most and then they can tell themselves ‘I knew this wouldn’t work.’”
Smithwick noted that social media influencers did not become popular until recently, explaining that “before you used to have to get chosen, and now people that are on TikTok have more leverage than some professional chefs that cook in some of the world’s best restaurants.”
It’s hard to achieve success for a restaurant brand within this industry with such a diverse landscape. With the rise in trends like influencer marketing, it can be challenging for restaurant owners to know their targets. Susi claimed it’s all about “being mindful about the brand when it comes to bringing influencers in.” In other words, one must choose the right people for the right product.
In an article by Platform Magazine, writer Mikaela Weis explained, “Recently, many brands have partnered with influencers as a way to help build brand awareness. A study from MediaKix shows that 89% of marketers get similar or even better return on investment with influencers as compared to other marketing channels.”
Perfecting the recipe
Social media and PR have not only changed the landscape of the food and beverage industry, but for restaurant owners as well. “They look to their PR team and to their social media teams to have the understanding of how to best market the business,” said Susi. Without these resources, recent advancements within this industry would have never been possible.
Restaurants rely heavily on their social media and PR teams for discovering the best communication strategies. “Those businesses know what they want to do, and they know their product so well. But, they have a hard time sharing it and knowing who to talk to or what outlets they want to have their first release on,” Susi explained.
One example of a brand with excellent social media strategies is Crumbl Cookies. Its communication and marketing teams hit the ground running in 2017 by introducing a unique “hype cycle” based around weekly cookie flavors that they would release each week. “This model of weekly menu refreshes not only built anticipation, but it also gave content creators new fodder each week to engage with the brand. These videos, featuring the particularly telegenic cookies in slow break-in-half closeups and quick-fire reviews the internet loves, put Crumbl’s hype machine into overdrive,” explained a Bon Appétit article.
This strategy left Crumbl Cookies’ target audience waiting impatiently each week for the release of new flavors. By creating a community around cookies, the brand achieved a strong and loyal audience just by its social media presence.
Now, it’s a matter of who can do the “craziest” or most “outrageous” thing to stand out from their competitors. Brands are having to think in an unconventional way and are getting creative to win over their audiences.
Making it count
Platforms like TikTok and Instagram have become hot spots for food content on social media. In a Forbes article, CJ Hernandez, partner solutions manager for publisher & lifestyle partnerships at Instagram, said that “food has always been a popular interest area for the platform, and in the last 10 years the focus has shifted away from aesthetic photos of food (though those are still popular) to the people eating and making the food and the stories behind them.”
The easy use of these platforms is great, but now everyone thinks they can do it and platforms have become cluttered. “It really drew back our attention span, and now we only have three seconds to impress someone with a video,” said Smithwick. “The first three seconds are the most important things in the video. So that’s the hook.”
With this small window of opportunity, it’s all about how social media and PR teams approach it. As a Vesta blog post noted, “For the restaurant industry, which relies heavily on reviews and recommendations, this means every customer now has the power of an acclaimed food critic — if not more.”
Not only are there self-proclaimed food critics now, but there are also self-proclaimed chefs. Those who have jumped to social media to start showing off their cooking skills and have gone viral may feel like they’re taking the jobs of some chefs. B. Dylan Hollis is one example. “He is one of several TikTok creators, many of them with little or no professional cooking experience, who have gone from tinkering in their home kitchens to topping best-seller lists in a remarkably short time. In the process, they’ve shot a jolt of energy into a sagging cookbook market,” explained New York Timeswriter Priya Krishna.
If the strategic approach is something the market hasn’t seen before, there is a higher chance of finding success in this industry. While social media and PR have introduced challenges to building a strong online presence, most resources can be used as a tool for achieving success in this industry. Explore the options, think unconventionally and don’t be afraid to put something new out there. The market just might eat it up!