Restaurant marketing might be a complex practice, but the most effective campaigns often have a simple message, expert presenters emphasized during the spring meeting of the National Restaurant Association’s Marketing Executives Group, or MEG, which took place in Chicago, May 14-16.

More than 300 marketing executives gathered to network and discuss best practices at MEG ahead of the annual NRA Show, being held in Chicago, May 17-20. The first day of the meeting focused on standing out from the marketing clutter and creating messages optimized for word-of-mouth reach.

“Today, focus is even more important than it ever was,” branding expert Laura Ries noted during a panel. “It’s the key to building your brand, because it’s an over-communicated society. There are too many products, too many media channels and too much marketing noise. The over-simplified message is the solution.”

She framed such breakthrough creative as a “visual hammer,” or a simple yet evocative image that customers easily understand. A visual hammer then drives home a “verbal nail” into consumers’ awareness — again, a message or slogan that is effective and memorable because of its simplicity.

Strong brands own single words in the marketplace, she continued, citing car brands like BMW or Volvo, which are associated with “driving” or “safety,” respectively.

“It’s not enough to have a good product,” noted Dr. Jonah Berger, professor at The Wharton School and author of “Contagious: Why Things Catch On,” during his keynote speech. “The question is how you can get people to talk about and share that product to help it catch on. If you don’t know how to use word-of-mouth effectively, it’s going to be really hard to get your product to be successful.”

Berger has devoted his career to advising brands on using word-of-mouth methods to spread their messages because the practice has a higher trust factor among consumers — who hear about products this way from friends — and it helps turn existing customers into brand ambassadors.

Berger also highlighted face-to-face interaction as a vital way to market a product. He cited a study by Keller Fay Group, which found that despite all its hype, social media has been shown to account for just 7 percent of total word-of-mouth marketing.

“Online [marketing] is definitely useful; it’s one of the channels through which word-of-mouth travels,” he said. “The problem with focusing so much online is that we focus so much on the technology rather than the psychology. Years ago, somebody might have gotten up on this stage and said MySpace is going to change the way you do business forever.”

Berger closed by reminding the MEG audience that “word-of-mouth is not simply social media,” a point echoed in a panel by three social-media executives, including Steve Governale of Facebook, Brett Kreisman of Twitter and Swen Graham of Foursquare.

The three experts agreed that restaurant brands can falter on their platforms by not seeing and planning for the big picture and instead getting bogged down in minutiae, like trying to be part of every trending topic on Twitter, getting too hyper-local with posts and offers on Foursquare, or relying too much on current fans on Facebook.

Governale, Facebook’s category director for restaurants, said brands need to have a content strategy and focus on the creative as they would with broadcast campaigns.

“Where we’ve seen brands have success is when they’ve taken the creative elements to it and seriously put that discipline into how they’re publishing content on the platform,” Governale said. “As a marketer, good creative is the single-biggest driver for organic engagement.”

Members of MEG’s volunteer board of directors — including Clay Dover of Raising Cane’s Chicken Fingers, Stacey Kane of AmRest, Rachel Phillips-Luther of Zoë’s Kitchen and Chris Tomasso of First Watch — also were scheduled to lead an education session during the NRA Show on Saturday.

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