Written by Milt Miller – What are you doing to keep your customers thinking of you while they are away over the summer break? Too often this area of marketing a school food program is not considered. Traditionally, opening participation levels are lower than those at the end of the year. Ever wonder why? Students like most customers are creatures of habit. Once they get used to patronizing a store, restaurant, pizza shop, or food court they continue to go there. They continue, that is, until something else catches their eye or they lose interest due to lack of effective marketing that keeps them remembering why they like going there. This drop in opening participation is largely the result of losing contact with them for several months. They form other preferences and acquire other tastes that results in lower participation.
Some school food professionals say this drop is common and expect it to happen each year. When asked if it could be avoided, would they like the higher participation early on? They say yes, but it can’t be avoided. Maybe in the past that was true, but with today’s technology it does not have to be. It is now possible to keep your brand in front of your customers and keep them thinking of the great things you do for them all year, even during long breaks in service. Marketing is an ongoing process that pays huge dividends when done continuously. Customers only forget you if you let them. Why take the chance of not getting them back?
Marketing is the act of promoting and selling a product or service in a manner that is relevant to one’s customers. Old style marketing methods of signs, posters, handouts, and in school announcements, are no longer relevant to student customers and cannot be used when students are not in school. Texts, email, and social media can be used effectively at any time and are the most relevant forms of media to today’s students. This type of marketing makes them aware of what is happening over a long break, increases their anticipation of trying new foods or services when they return, and hence keeps them participating. Remember, marketing is about promoting, selling, raising awareness and communicating the value of your product. This should be a continuous process. If your customers understand your product(s) and services, and are made aware of the value of them, on an ongoing basis, then your customers will want to continue participating.
Students are not your only customers. Parents play a major role in driving student participation. Keeping parents informed and thinking of you over the summer keeps their students coming back. If mom and dad understand what you are doing and realize the value in your services, they are less likely to pack a lunch. In most cases we already have their email address because we use them to send notices that they owe money. Why not send them something positive and informative once in a while? All they usually hear from us is, pay up or your child will not be given a lunch, your lunch account is critically low, or lunch prices will increase for next year. If we sent them positive information justifying the value in school lunch or lists of new relevant products and services being provided to their students, they might be more receptive to the bad news. If you are using texts to communicate closings and other information to students and parents at your school, why not send info on your lunch program via this media also? Texts are the most read media. It has been proven that a text only goes unread for no longer than 90 (ninety) minutes. Facebook and Pinterest are also very effective marketing media.
Facebook allows you to stay in contact with friends and provides you with immediate contact. Getting information about the great things you and your staff are doing to prepare for your students return in the fall is a great way to keep them thinking about you. Make your posts fun and exciting with pictures and descriptions showing the value of your services. This doesn’t have to be done daily, but should be done often enough to keep their attention and focus on how great your program is for them. You can solicit their feedback and make them feel like they are part of the fun!
My experience with school food service professionals recently has shown me that they are either the humblest or shyest people on the face of the earth. This trait is almost a fault. Most of your customers don’t have a clue about all the good things you do on a daily basis to provide healthy choices and great service. Most parents only have the past perceptions from their school days as to what you really do. It is time for school food professionals to let their light shine and inform their customers of the great things they do! They need to do it in a way that is relevant to their target audiences and in a way they prefer to be reached. They also need to continue this marketing even when school is closed. If they stop remembering you, they will stop participating.
Milt Miller is the Principal and Chief Innovator at Milton Miller Consulting. Throughout his 32 years in the food service industry he has managed, operated and assisted food service programs to become successful. For more information on this and other topics, contact Milt at; www.miltonmillerconsultant.com.