In the din of American advertising, some restaurant ad campaigns stand above the noise. Where's the beef? I'm lovin' it. Eat fresh. Have it your way. No wonder some of the most memorable slogans, jingles, and ads ever have come from the food industry.
Over the years restaurants have gobbled up ad space in print, broadcast, and digital and restaurant social media. The space is incredibly diverse and competitive. Think of it: You eat three times a day, and on any of those occasions, you can go wherever you want. No subscription plans. No long-term contracts. No memberships, generally. Just whim, propelled by a grumbly stomach. Restaurant marketing is a relentless battleground.
Once you’ve got your restaurant slogan ready, think about how to reach your target audience of hungry people with wallets. Here are some of the best restaurant ads that have been broadcast, printed, and posted in recent times.
The best restaurant ads on social media
Initially, Cracker Barrel just got lucky. Erin and Ben Napier, stars of the hit HGTV show Home Town, genuinely loved the folksy chain and blogged that fact to a massive audience. Cracker Barrel in turn piggy-backed off the notoriety to launch a successful campaign coined “Cracker Barrel Moments” that spotlighted on the Napiers’ affection for Cracker Barrel — shopping in the general store, sitting on the rockers, eating their favorite dishes — and quoted their blog in captions for their posts. This brought out more Cracker Barrel fans, who shared their own user-generated content under the hashtag #CrackerBarrelMoment.
Maybe you don’t have the budget to hire Hollywood actors for a full-blown film shoot. Panera, however, went big and made a faux movie trailer that paired Danielle Fishel and Ben Savage, recognizable as teen sweethearts Cory and Topanga from the ‘90s sitcom Boy Meets World. The two run into one another at a Panera, feel that old romantic tug over a shared love pizza, and re-enact classic rom-com tropes from the likes of Love Actually, Pretty Woman, and When Harry Met Sally. The tongue-in-cheek nostalgia play worked: It earned coverage from outlets such as Today for its originality.
Popeyes and the Chicken Sandwich Wars
One day, sure as rain, a small child will ask you: “Grandpa, what did you do during the Chicken Sandwich Wars?” And you’ll get to say, like everyone else on Twitter, that you sat back and watched the carnage. The fireworks began in 2019. Popeyes, the venerated fried chicken chain, got religion and decided to put some of that chicken on a bun — entering a crowded, fiercely contested territory. People flipped. The sandwich was a smash. Popeyes locations routinely sold out, which made people flip all the more. Popeyes sales nearly doubled in three months. The chain’s Twitter mentions went up by a factor of 178 over a year earlier. This was, perhaps not coincidentally, a high-water moment on Twitter for the phrase “what a time to be alive.”
Other chicken chains, brandishing their own sandwiches, entered the fray. The internet being its usual superlative self, everyone needed an opinion on which sandwich was The Best, and a brawl ensued. KFC, Wendy’s, and Chick-fil-A cashed in on the moment, repositioning their ads to get in on the fight and encouraging consumers to cast their own “vote” by, uh, eating a bunch of chicken sandwiches. Memes ensued. Celebrities weighed in. The result was an organic campaign that still rages. Like the Cola Wars of the 1980s, this battle may never determine a losing side, only winners.
The best restaurant ads in print
A big, honkin’ foil oval sits just above black text on a white background: “Usually, when you roll something this good, it’s illegal.” Did you just get the munchies? Chipotle used this ad across digital platforms, but its print version was ubiquitous at bus stops, on Times Square banners, the works. For such a splashy campaign, the humor stays relatively sly. Everyone knows the “roll” to which the fast-casual Mexican chain refers, and the accompanying tagline “pass it on'' plucks the same chord while nudging the reader to invite others in on the joke. The result is a cross-generational success. Millennials think the ad is aimed at them, while their parents smirk along as the Steve Miller Band plays on their satellite radio.
The best broadcast restaurant ads
The pizza delivery giant was one of the first restaurants to roll out contactless delivery, and it rode a movie spoof to make the most of the innovation. That alone isn’t what makes the ad work. As a pantsless young man dances around a living room a la Tom Cruise circa 1983, you have to applaud the brashness of leaning into a Risky Business theme just as the pandemic was still gathering steam. More impressive still was making lockdown look almost fun. Taking a deadly, once-a-century pandemic and at once offering a solution while prompting a laugh — there was a reason Dominos saw a nearly 10% increase in sales during the widely abysmal first quarter of 2020.
Early in 2020, as hospitals were drowning in Covid patients, Burger King launched a “Stay Home” campaign around healthcare workers in which the chain actually offered customers incentives to #StayHome and order online: free delivery for all, and for health care workers, a free Whopper. The ad itself resonated with everyone staying home on their couch, capturing the zeitgeist of a nation bummed about indefinite lockdowns. “Your country needs you … to stay on your couch,” is as strong a deadpan laugh line as anyone wrote during a year when, oddly, being incredibly lazy was indeed a patriotic service.