Chobani, for example, incubated its new strategy to expand the brand through savory dishes and snacks in the Chobani Café.
“It’s a really cool way to get a sense of where we’re headed and to get feedback from our fans,” McGuinness said.
The experience of sampling products in an upscale café is not quite the same as picking it off the shelf at a supermarket, but marketers noted the test and learning at cafés still yields valid insights, sometimes better than those from focus groups.
“When done well, they should epitomize the ideal consumption moment in a consumer journey,” Lorente said.
Tasting and testing also suits the rise of the Millennial consumer, who has a different way of relating to brands and values experiences. “They are the first generation to not distinguish online and offline experiences. They see a singular reality and brand narrative,” Lorente said. But Millennials also crave sensory experiences, which is why cafés are enjoying such a revival, she added.
“There is a curiosity that’s been empowered by all these ways of sharing,” said Hopper, author of “Selling Eating: Restaurant Marketing Beyond the Word Delicious.” “Before there was the ability of sending a Snapchat of yourself eating breakfast cereal in Times Square, they didn’t have a point for doing this.”
Chobani said that its SoHo café is one of the most Instagrammed restaurants in New York; Pepsi expects Kola House to augment its social media and its pull with influencers, with plans to offer music events in partnership with Live Nation as a social draw.
“We live in a world today where everything is Instagram-able, Snapchat-able. If we can create a memorable experience in a single place, its footprint is much larger than that because influencers will spread that message,” Pepsi’s Kaufman told CMO.com. “They will be having fun, listening to music, tasting new products, and posting to their accounts. That then has a massive impact to the consumers who are never going to be able to even go in a Kola House.”
But running a restaurant is different than selling packaged goods. It has its own barriers to entry and operational difficulties, such as health-code regulations and tight operating margins common in the restaurant business.
Facing the operational issues of running an eatery also involves a change in mindset and tactics for CPG marketers. Marking the cafés as a marketing expense and running them at a loss is not an option, experts said. McGuinness noted the Chobani Café has had double-digit sales growth each year since opening in 2012.
“If you were the excited marketing director, you could say, ‘Yes, in an age where media is so fragmented, this is as powerful content as anything,” Hopper said. “But the thing that the CFO is going to say is, ‘How long can you make it a positive experience if it’s operating at a loss?’ That’s something that creates pressures and creates tensions.”
Losses can affect functions that are depending on cash flow; service and quality can suffer eventually, Hopper said. “Operating at a loss as a marketing stunt can work for a while,” he said, “but not for the long run.”
And in the long run, a poor experience will damage the brand, which is another risk, experts said. “They seem like pretty valid experiments but dangerous ones. God forbid someone get E. coli,” Hopper said.
Food poisoning aside, risk is why most CPG companies partner with experienced restaurateurs. To open Kellogg’s NYC, Kellogg Co. partnered with Christina Tosi (better known for the New York restaurant chainlet Momofuku Milk Bar) and restaurant consultant Antony Rudolf (formerly associated with Per Se chef Thomas Keller). Pepsi has partnered with hospitality group The Metric to open Kola House.