THE article in last Friday’s Business Times ‘Trouble at the Top of The Food Chain’ seems to portray a dark cloud looming over the F&B industry in terms of how new media is transforming the way restaurants are perceived.
There are many strong words used in this article, in particular ‘credibility’ and ‘ethics’, when it comes to describing how certain tactics are used in food reviews by influencers from traditional as well as the new media.
This ‘media divide’ between bloggers and traditional media has been a constant debate for some time amongst many restaurant owners with some being ‘pro blogger’ and others ‘pro print’ media. From a PR perspective, there’s really no one way to skin a cat and any restaurateur should explore all options in their marketing budget to get their word out there.
Let’s rewind a bit. Before the birth of social media or even traditional media such as newspapers, restaurant owners had to get the word out there on how great their food was.They did this by giving away free samples or getting someone to walk around with a signboard.
So what’s changed? In Singapore’s competitive climate where the average lifespan of a restaurant is around six months (if you’re lucky), restaurateurs have to do anything they can to market themselves to get attention. Giving away free meals to certain groups of people is a good way to create some buzz in the community and there’s no harm in being in the good books of the media either.
One man’s meat is another’s poison
Restaurateurs must understand that they can’t expect everyone to love their food. With social media everyone is a critic with some netizens becoming extremely vocal with their ‘expert opinion’ on new restaurants.
You just need to go on public food review websites such as HungryGoWhere or TripAdvisor to see a huge disparity of opinions in the comments about a restaurant and you’ll know what I’m talking about.
If you want to talk about credibility, what’s stopping restaurant owners from getting their friends to write a bunch of positive reviews on these sites for their own establishments to spike ratings? Or to write negative reviews about their competitors?
Mr Vikram Natarajan, CEO of North Indian restaurant chain Copper Chimney doesn’t see the distinction between traditional and new media as they both serve different purposes. “While we can’t please everyone, we value diverse opinions from our patrons as well as media as this constantly keeps us on our toes,” said Mr Natarajan.
From a consumer’s point of view, it is always good to tap into a wide range of opinions to help them make their decision. Some of the factors for consumers to consider when making a decision on where to eat would be of course the price, restaurant location, service standards, and of course how great the food is. Neutral reviews, paid reviews, advertising, influencing and even vote/rating rigging are part of the landscape, which readers are educated enough to deal with. I would feel that something is not right if there were only positive views about a particular establishment. That would sound more incredible to me.
More choices on the menu
I’ve hosted bloggers and print media for my F&B clients and can conclude that many issues being mentioned by industry folks about ‘unethical’ behaviour apply to both types of media. These include coming unannounced and expecting free meals; bringing four or five guests for a tasting, ordering copious amounts of (free) booze, and making ridiculous demands at the last minute (e.g coming to a sushi restaurant and telling the host that you can’t eat seafood…and yes it has happened to me before).
And while there are bloggers who are paid for each review they write for F&B establishments, there are many other bloggers who do it because they enjoy it, such as Mr Ian Low, who writes for F&B blog The Silver Chef. “There are many bloggers I know that have day jobs and enjoy writing about food in their spare time because of their passion. In cases where I have been invited to a restaurant for a review and am not satisfied, my usual policy is to give constructive feedback on how they can improve. Subsequently I will not post my review and will only go back again in not less than three months,” said Mr Low.
On the other end of the spectrum you have bloggers that think they are mini celebrities in their own right and share their life like an open book on their blog. The popular ones in this category with many ‘adoring fans’ earn income not only through their blog posts but also through online advertisements or product endorsements. Finally there are those just out for a free meal and want to be invited for as many events as possible. They usually don’t last very long within the blogging community.
I am quite fortunate that in my career I have seldom come across bloggers in the last two categories. Most the bloggers we host in the course of our work do what they do out of a constant need to tell people about the awesome experiences they are having. And that amount of passion is worth applauding.
So if the main concern from the ‘F&B police’ is about how the F&B business is being portrayed to the public through newer forms of media like blogs, then we should also take a look at advertisements in general. Does that Big Mac look as tantalising in real life as in the poster? If it did, you really shouldn’t eat it as it’s probably pumped with chemicals to make it look good.
Anyway the point is that consumers are definitely more educated now, and are able to distinguish between what is paid for and what is not. And even if the lines are blurred, giving them more choices and diverse opinions will only make them better informed to make that final decision about where to eat.
So remember to take all these opinions with a large pinch of salt. It will certainly taste better with your meal.