Lessons from Olive Garden: Are Customers Embarrassed to Support Your Brand?

Contributor:  Brian Cantor
Posted:  03/15/2012  12:00:00 AM EDT
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Brands spend countless hours determining how best to encourage customers to share positive feedback with their online and social networks.  But amid all the strategies and concerns they consider, few likely account for one startling reality:  what if customers are made to feel embarrassed to demonstrate their support for the organization?

A recent viral sensation involving Darden’s insanely popular Olive Garden chain revealed how aggressive online critics and commenters can be in shaming those who shower praise on particular brands.

Shortly after printing her honest, non-ironic, reasonably-positive review of the “impressive” and “beautiful” Olive Garden that finally opened in Grand Forks, North Dakota, Marilyn Hagerty found herself at the center of an unexpected media circus.  Believing she had simply done her job of reviewing a new restaurant in her relatable, down-to-Earth style, she published her piece with little conception of what it meant to treat Olive Garden as anything but disgraceful, let alone as a Mecca of culinary service that had instantly become the “largest and most beautiful restaurant” in Grand Forks.

The piece quickly set an all-time traffic record (by many multiples) on the Grand Forks Herald website, attracting tens of thousands of social shares and an impressive array of mainstream media articles in the process.  Unfortunately, few of those shares involved an appreciation for Hagerty’s writing style or insightful manner of breaking down a culinary experience.

Rather, the tone was that of mockery—either outright mocking Hagerty’s taste, outright mocking Olive Garden or condescendingly mocking this “cute old lady” who’s detached from popular culture.  “Cute,” in this case, is of the “I bet the concept of computers scares her” variety, not the “Those shoes are so cute, girl” variety.

Given Olive Garden’s reputation with the most-socially outspoken, a contingent that includes few, if any, individuals unaccustomed to the visual of a massive chain restaurant, a full reading of the review was not even necessary to understand the circus surrounding Hagerty’s piece.  All these critics needed to know is that the review was not negative (or that a review of a new Olive Garden was printed in the first place).

Those who did read the piece stumbled on some priceless gems for the cynical comedian.  She obsessed over her waitress’ raspberry lemonade recommendation the way one would dwell on an expensive wine pairing at a five-star establishment.  To the typical, jaded social consumer, recommending raspberry lemonade as a great choice for the meal would be like saying, “There’s this drink, Mountain Dew, that goes very well with our pepperoni pizza.”  It underscores the innocence with which Hagerty approaches her eating experience, partially explaining the travesty of logic that resulted in a positive endorsement of Olive Garden making the papers.

The immense, viral ridicule could not have been less flattering for Hagerty, whose credibility as a food critic flew completely out the window (so much so that she is not even attempting to call herself a food expert).  But the significant media attention and exposure is a journalist’s dream and likely represents more than due compensation for the reputational damage suffered by the content of the Olive Garden piece.  And one certainly cannot discount the “little old lady” appeal associated with an 85-year-old woman embracing the elegance of an Olive Garden establishment.

For Olive Garden, however, this type of coverage could not be more humiliating.  True, it is unlikely to have any meaningful, negative impact on the financials (it might even boost sales in the very short-term), but from a reputational standpoint, it makes it even more difficult to profess a public love of Olive Garden.  Think about it—even “critically-panned” movies like “Joe Dirt” have some supporters within vocal online circles.  And yet a single, not-so-negative Olive Garden review was shocking enough to spark a media firestorm.

While the public reaction undoubtedly stings for the leaders and staff members of a brand that has made a legitimate effort to improve its credibility—it, for instance, has famously begun touting that it has a culinary school in Italy—the reality of the sentiment is inevitable given Olive Garden’s positioning within the market.

When it comes to outspoken web “critics,” the chain restaurant represents candy for those who prey on negativity.  In one of the most telling and unintentionally hilarious statements I have ever witnessed regarding the online conception of chain restaurants, the popular New York food blog Midtown Lunch summed up how illogically-dismissive “foodies” can be of mainstream establishments.  Upon learning that Five Guys—not New York City’s beloved Shake Shack—won its reader poll for burger joint of the year in 2010, the stunned editor noted the surprise:  Five Guys is “a chain…and it’s not even from New York.”

Not “its burgers are inferior for so and so reason.”  Not “its rolls tend to get soggy long before the customer can take a first bite.”  “It’s a chain, and it’s not even from New York.”  As if either of those should have any fundamental bearing on the quality of the food served at the restaurant.

From McDonald’s to Qdoba to TGI Fridays, chains can be unbelievably successful, but when it comes to cultivating loyalty and advocacy from influential online bloggers, they need not bother even applying.

Beyond the basic “chain hate,” Olive Garden further suffers from the manner in which it is positioned in the market.  Unlike some of the aforementioned brands, Olive Garden does not portray itself as a quick-and-dirty “popcorn” restaurant.  True, with a slogan like “When you’re here, you’re family,” Olive Garden isn’t necessarily going for elitism, but it definitely espouses a sense of pride in its food, design and authenticity.  And that falls on deaf ears for a pretentious blogging community that could not remotely consider the possibility that a chain excels in any of those categories.

Worse, Olive Garden serves Italian food.  The Italian-American culture notoriously reveres its cooking, and if there were ever a type of restaurant unable to compete with "what mom makes,” it is an Italian restaurant.  And as an American-based chain, the concept downright offends those who believe the Italian heritage is necessary to perfect the cuisine--people who would prefer mom's cooking but can at least stomach food served at restaurants operated by actual Italian-Americans.

As someone with a great passion for food and experience sampling Zagat’s favorite restaurants in the culinary-centric New York City and Hudson Valley regions,  I take offense to much of the aforementioned rationale—I believe restaurants should be judged by the quality of the food, the quality of the service and the quality of the overall experience, not simply by the ethnicity of the ownership and the size of their marketing budgets.

The hypocrisy of “foodies” bugs me to no end.  Consistently alleging mainstream customers of blindly supporting branded chain restaurants without giving the time of day to the “little guys,” online critics somehow do not realize they are doing the same thing.  They immediately assume that a chain must serve mass-produced, microwaved, non-threatening food, and thus also pass quality judgment without considering the reality of the offering.

But just as they feel more confident admitting he likes the low-rated, cult-supported “Community” than more popular shows like “Modern Family” and “The Big Bang Theory,” most of these critics are not going to require any more knowledge than “chain or no chain” to consider the authenticity and quality of the food.  And that means that a particularly egregious “offender” like Olive Garden is never going to be a magnet for outspoken support.  The “right” approach is to ridicule it.

As a result, supporters have to think long and hard about the adjectives and aggression they use in sharing Olive Garden loyalty across online networks.  Though Hagerty has not wavered in her opinion or the style of her reviews, her son, interestingly, seemed to do some damage control by pointing out that a between-the-lines reading of his mother’s review would confirm “mixed” thoughts on the Olive Garden experience.

Opining for the Wall Street Journal, James Hagerty details his mother’s light-hearted, human-oriented approach to writing and notes that she is not the kind of person who will relent to public sentiment.  But for good measure, apparently, he cannot let the idea of his mother wholly enjoying Olive Garden stand—he must point out that her emphasis on the décor suggests the food itself wasn’t so great.  He must do what she is too proud to do—acknowledge that she is not the world’s biggest Olive Garden fan.

Even if his implication regarding Marilyn’s review is correct—that she emphasized the décor as part of an “if you can’t say anything nice, don’t say anything at all” policy –why is it necessary to point out retroactively?  If there were truly no credibility issue at stake, why would it matter whether the public read her review as overtly-positive or subliminally-mixed?

Olive Garden has more than 700 locations and more than 2 million Facebook fans.  Its parent company Darden achieved more than $7 billion in revenue last year.  Clearly, there is a large and passionate fanbase, and many within that fanbase are not supporting the restaurant ironically.  They truly enjoy the food, service and experience.

But when it comes to aggressive online support, especially within influential food companies, it is often better left unmentioned.  Those willing to loudly trumpet their loyalty to the brand will be subject to peer scrutiny—and so if they do not want to be judged harshly, they better have some sort of “excuse” for why they were so kind to the restaurant.  They better be able to blame their enjoyment on the beautiful décor, the hot, new waitress or the crisp raspberry lemonade.  Actually liking the food and overall experience is not allowed.

Given its large customer base, when it comes to engaging audiences via online media, Olive Garden is in a prime position—it has millions of fans willing to participate in a dialogue with the brand.

But when it comes to the next level of social interaction—courting aggressive brand advocates within influential communities—Olive Garden’s negative brand reputation serves as a plague.  Sure, support for Olive Garden can get publicity, but it also creates a reputational risk for the brand advocate.  And it will not necessarily be effective in convincing others within that community of influencers to join in on the support.

When developing your own social engagement strategy, be sure you understand what supporting your brand means to those in various audience segments.  One’s advocacy on social media serves as a window into his personal character, and if the reputation of the brand will do something to adversely transform his personal perception, he will think twice about the type of support he communicates to others.

And that kind of thought totally changes the game regarding the viability of a social sharing strategy.

Brian Cantor Contributor:   Brian Cantor


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