Brand Storytelling Success: Columbia Restaurant Group

How to Improve a Good Thing…

What a pleasure to attend AMA Tampa Bay’s July luncheon yesterday! While it had all the makings that attract seasoned networkers… good attendance, interesting topic, along with a cool venue, I quickly found myself jotting down notes, thinking “these are too good not to share!”

Industry veteran, Michael Kilgore, CMO of the Columbia Restaurant Group, (13 restaurants) had the challenge of how to continue to improve a really good thing… an ultra–successful, family–owned business located in the heart of Ybor City in Tampa. Kilgore shared his brand-awareness strategy and how they found using a combination of guiding principles,  technology, and compelling social media storytelling, to effectively to win the hearts, minds and stomachs of their customers.

Let’s put this in perspective, CRG is owned and operated by the fourth and fifth generation descendants of the founder for over 110 years! That is an impressive track record, surviving the Great Depression and prohibition days, and is the oldest restaurant in Florida. Over the past five years, Michael’s marketing team supported building five new restaurants, and introducing three new brands to the marketplace, with only a $5k advertising budget.  The original flagship “1905 Columbia Restaurant” holds 1,700 seats, books more than 1,400 groups/banquets annually, and takes up an entire block! Their new brand, “Ulele” is earning the high distinction of being one of the “hottest restaurants in the country” according to OpenTable diners. They must be doing something very right!

Their strategy has been to use “experience marketing” and to focus on three main topics: food, family, and heritage. They follow the suggested daily Facebook post practice, and found when they introduced video they achieved a 65% increase in CTR (click-thru rates). They do not buy Facebook ads, and have grown over 32,000 fans organically. In addition to high quality food, they focus on creating a memorable experience, from hand picking the music tracks, using authentic Spanish décor, sharing a history lesson within their menu, even down to how the waitstaff dresses and interacts with customers. They monitor their social media reputation and meticulously address both the rave reviews and the occasional hiccup.

Kilgore embraces the use of technology to help them monitor key performance statistics by using the data that you already know about your customer to provide exceptional customer service. By monitoring past success, it helps you to be responsive to achieve future success. In their case, CRG tracks “how frequently do you dine?”, “what is your average spend?”, and “when do you celebrate special events?” to provide valuable insights. Tracking this data continues to help initiate and drive their marketing efforts. They even use technology to alert managers when a VIP is in the house, or prompt special care or a “thank you” to a customer.

They found that the daily monitoring of Yelp provides a means to have a daily “secret shopper” and gain valuable feedback… both positive (that they can then re-post) and not so positive (so they can respond quickly if needed).

Kilgore shared the below take-away tips to this sellout crowd of marketers:

  • Do the best you can for your client, but realize you don’t have to beat up your vendors in the process! You may have to call in a favor in the future.
  • You can’t discount your way to success, it’s not always about price.
  • It doesn’t matter if it’s perfect if it doesn’t get out the door.
  • Confirm every phone number by placing a live call prior to running an ad.
  • Take www. off your URL listings, we all know that part already.
  • Find yourself mentors of the trade (such as through AMA Tampa Bay)
  • It’s important to also talk about failures and learn from mistakes.
  • Everything affects The Brand.
  • Never stop learning, read books, Marketing Prof online, etc.
  • If you are counting the number of hours you work, you are working at the wrong place.
  • Work for people that appreciate your efforts.
  • Always be fair and ethical. Don’t ever lie, as you will forget and get caught.
  • Don’t go straight to creative with an idea, brainstorm with the entire team. Often the Ops team doesn’t know what you need to know to write a compelling story…be in the room!
  • Use true metrics to monitor results; “very well received” is not a metric.
  • Read, watch, measure, react. Gathering engagement is good, but monitor what actually drives revenue.
  • Surround yourself with talented, dedicated people; you are all better together! None of us are as strong as ALL OF US.
  • Question everything, make accurate observations and don’t accept “it’s always been that way.”
  • Be available to reporters; know what they care about and feed them intriguing stories, even if they are not about your brand. They will soon learn to trust you as a resource.
  • Pay attention to detail and care every day!
  • Don’t go into networking to build your resume, do good volunteer work, help people, and you will naturally network as a result.
  • Treat every customer interaction as a means to learn more and improve.
  • Finally, give to your local charities. Quoting the Columbia owner, Richard, “if it doesn’t hurt a bit, you didn’t give enough”

Always a good day when you pick up a few new leads, enjoy a fantastic meal, and feel inspired to share what you learned! Another successful event hosted by AMA Tampa Bay.

About the Author

Valid is a proud annual sponsor providing data resources for American Medical Association. To learn more about Valid’s data-driven analytical solutions, please contact Brenda McGowan, Account Manager of Data Solutions, at 630.742.8062 or write [email protected].