Your restaurant may have the best food and service in town. But no one will know that until they actually eat there. So how do you get them in the door? Restaurant ads are one way.
Advertising is effective—that's why it's been such a major industry for so long. And in the digital age, advertising is more accessible than even before, even for small businesses like independent restaurants.
Ready to get inspired to create restaurant ads that will make your future customers' mouths water? We asked marketing and branding experts around the world to tell us about their favorite restaurant ads so we could see what makes them work—and how other restaurants can learn from them. Let's take a look, and then walk through some popular advertising and restaurant marketing options that any restaurant can use.
5 Experts' Favorite Food and Restaurant Ads
What makes a restaurant ad work? To try to find the answer to that question, we asked around. 5 marketing and branding professionals told us about their favorite, most impactful, and most memorable food ads.
Most of them come from big fast food chains—the types of restaurants that have a lot of money to put into writing and filming high-quality TV ads. But there's still a lot that even small, independent restaurants on a budget can learn from these ads. Here are the top 5 restaurant advertising examples we found, and what makes them so effective.
"I will occasionally look those commercials up just to watch them again as an adult and they still make me laugh"
The ad: Pizza Hut's The Pizza Head Show
Daniel Hess, a writer and filmmaker from Baltimore, Maryland, tells us that his favorite restaurant ad of all time came from Pizza Hut.
"A restaurant ad that stuck out to me was the Pizza Hut commercials with The Pizza Head Show," he said. "They were funny, memorable and I was just the right age for them to be very effective on me. I always loved when they would air, especially on Friday afternoons as that was our weekly pizza night. Even now I will occasionally look those commercials up just to watch them again as an adult and they still make me laugh."
Why it worked: The Pizza Head Show was goofy and made viewers laugh. But the reason these ads from the 90s are so memorable now, all these years later, is because of the nostalgia of those Friday pizza nights for Hess's family. Other restaurants can use a sense of nostalgia to create effective ads—say, by highlighting a family-style Sunday dinner special.
"It was smart, strategic, unexpected, and brilliantly hilarious"
The ad: Dunkin Donuts' Police Chase commercial
Kevin Redmond, Chief Creative Strategist at Fuseideas, points to this 1999 ad from Dunkin Donuts.
"The ad is filmed from a helicopter, with kind of a rough, shaky cam style. It is mirroring a news helicopter that is following a live car chase between cops and robbers. The robber pulls into a Dunkin’ Donuts and runs into the store with the cops just steps behind him. They have him cornered!" Redmond said. "Seconds later the robber runs out of the Dunkin’ Donuts carrying a coffee and bag of donuts, and then the cops run out carrying their own bag of snacks. Both parties hop back into their cars and resume the pursuit."
Why it worked: According to Redmond, "First it got your attention and sucked you in—you thought you were watching a high speed car chase. Once you figured out what was going on you had to see how it ended. Secondly, the twist—when the robber runs out with his Dunkin’, followed by the cops with their bag, you get a laugh and you implicitly understand that Dunkin’ products are so good that even cops and robbers can agree to take a respite from their cat and mouse game to grab a quick snack. It was smart, strategic, unexpected, and brilliantly hilarious."
This ad uses the element of surprise. Like Redmond said, viewers first thought they were watching an actual car chase on the news. Then, they were surprised (and delighted) to see the twist that featured Dunkin Donuts. Other restaurants can also use the element of surprise in their marketing campaigns—try to find unexpected ways to highlight your products, like Dunkin did in the middle of a police chase.
"The message was so strong and convincing for their customers"
The ad: Burger King's Moldy Whopper
Shahek Raza Haryani, a digital marketing executive for PureVPN, pointed to this unconventional Burger King commercial as one that stuck with him.
The commercial shows a Whopper sandwich from Burger King over a 30-day period, as it becomes more and more moldy. You would think that kind of imagery in a restaurant ad would be a bad move—the last thing you want to do is gross customers out—but Haryani says it was eye-catching and memorable for other reasons.
Why it worked: "The message was so strong and convincing for their customers," Haryani said. "The ad showed that Burger King is using organic, natural, and fresh ingredients, and moving away from preservatives and artificial flavors."
It's an unconventional strategy, and it was definitely a risk. But Burger King's gamble paid off here. The ad showed clearly that Burger King food is natural and preservative-free, which is a big priority for today's diners. Other restaurants can emulate this strategy (though maybe not by taking photos of their food after it's gone bad). Use your restaurant's ads to focus on your ingredients—where they come from and how fresh they are.
"The whole commercial tickles the funny bone and makes you want to tell your friends, 'Hey, you’ve got to see this commercial!'"
The ad: Arby's "Summertime"
Eril Eti, the founder of ShopFood.com, loves this Arby's ad from late 2019. In it, a chef sings his own version of "Summertime," with lyrics about the ingredients of the Market Fresh sandwiches he's creating.
"The whole commercial tickles the funny bone and makes you want to tell your friends, 'Hey, you’ve got to see this commercial!'" Eti said.
Why it worked: A catchy jingle can go a long way toward helping keep your restaurant top-of-mind for potential customers. What's even better is this is an advertising strategy that any restaurant can take advantage of—freelance composers can create jingles for small businesses, often for affordable prices, and they can be used in TV and radio ads in your community.
"Much like the food, a few decades later, it's still with you"
The ad: The McDonald's Big Mac Challenge
And finally, we have one of the most iconic restaurant ads of all time: The McDonald's Big Mac Challenge. In this commercial from 1975, people are challenged to recite all the ingredients in a McDonald's Big Mac. After they struggle for a few moments, a jingle is introduced that turns the ingredient list into an easy-to-memorize song.
Why it worked: Sometimes the best restaurant ads are the simplest ones.
As Phil Davis, president and founder of Tungsten Branding, put it, "Much like the food, a few decades later, it's still with you." That's true—many people can still sing the song that names all the Big Mac's ingredients.
In 1975, things didn't go viral like they do now. But it's still easy to see how an advertising strategy like this one could be effective in the age of platforms like Facebook, Snapchat, and TikTok.
The 2 Types of Restaurant Ads
TV commercials might be some of the most memorable types of ads, but today, restaurant owners have many more options than that. For the restaurant industry, advertising platforms commonly fall into two categories: paid ad campaigns, and free marketing strategies.
Paid Restaurant Ad Campaigns
When a restaurant business is profitable and wants to reinvest its profits into finding more new customers, paid ad campaigns can be the way to go. These are the types of ads that cost money, and oftentimes require hiring experts to execute.
Social media ads
There are tons of social media platforms that offer advertising, but Facebook ads and Instagram ads are two of the most popular and effective for restaurants. These platforms allow you to choose the demographics you want to target with your ads, to ensure that they're seen by more people from your target customer groups. They also tend to offer affordable pricing models, so they're accessible for a wide variety of restaurants with different advertising budgets.
Formerly called Adwords, Google Ads is one of the most popular kinds of online advertising for small businesses. Google's sophisticated demographic targeting makes its ads extremely effective, and their pay-per-click model means you only pay for your ad as it works.
In the digital age, there can be a heavy focus on online advertising. But local, physical ads can still be effective for restaurants, including digital billboards. The digital ones are more affordable than traditional billboards, since you don't have to have your ad printed. And, if you can score a billboard with mouthwatering imagery in a high-traffic area (say, off a nearby highway where lots of hungry travelers pass by your town), it can draw in plenty of new customers.
TV commercials are one of the more difficult types of advertising to pull off, because they're pretty expensive to produce and will likely require hiring a number of professionals (writers, camera operators, a director, and actors, just to name a few). But we've seen from this article how effective TV commercials can be, and how they stick in people's minds. Commercials aren't completely out of reach—but try to create a video ad that can be repurposed on TV and social media, so you get the most bang for your buck.
Print ads are another type of advertising that gets overlooked in the digital age. Advertising in your local newspaper or magazine can be a great way to spread the word about your restaurant to the local community—and many newspapers offer great rates for local small businesses.
Free Restaurant Marketing Strategies
Many restaurants operate on slim profit margins. If your budget doesn't include money for advertising, there are still a number of free, DIY marketing ideas your restaurant can take advantage of.
Word of mouth
One of the best ways restaurants can advertise is by word-of-mouth. Unfortunately, this isn't a type of marketing you have much control over. But if you always strive to offer excellent food and service that delights all your guests, this will happen naturally.
Search engine optimization (SEO)
What if, when hungry people near you searched Google for "Restaurants near me," yours was the first search result they saw? That's what happens when you use search engine optimization, or SEO, for your website. SEO is also a great way to get more online orders for food delivery from your restaurant's website.
ProTip: Check out all our restaurant SEO tips and tricks.
Social media marketing
Social media marketing doesn't have to be paid ads. Just using your restaurant's social media effectively can help you reach new guests and stay top-of-mind for those who already follow you. If you aren't sure how to create effective social media posts, there are plenty of templates online. One of our best social media marketing tips (that's also totally free): Create a catchy hashtag just for your restaurant.
From coupons to loyalty programs, promotions can be a great way to draw guests into your restaurant—and keep them coming back again and again.
Email is one method of marketing every restaurant should be taking advantage of. It's easy, affordable, and surprisingly effective—email marketing open rates are higher for restaurants than almost any other type of business. Starting an email newsletter means you can keep guests up-to-date on events, new menus, new menu items, promotions, and more.
Digital Marketing Made Easy with the Right Tool: Popmenu
Despite the many different forms it can take, digital marketing can still be intimidating for many restaurant owners. After all, your job is running a restaurant, not creating ad campaigns.
That's why it's so important to have the right tools—like Popmenu.
Popmenu is an all-in-one digital toolkit for restaurants that simplifies and automates many of your marketing and remarketing efforts. But Popmenu isn't just a marketing tool—it also creates and maintains your website, turns online restaurant menus into interactive tools for guests, manages your online orders and waitlist, and so much more. In the digital age, Popmenu is the one technology tool restaurants can't afford to go without.
But don't just take our word for it—see for yourself. Sign up for a Popmenu demo today.