How does a familiar, family-oriented restaurant chain shake off middle age and become cool enough to attract the digital generation?
It puts its executive chef into a cooking show on YouTube. It changes the music played for patrons to contemporary pop instead of big band arrangements of Italian standards. Instead of 95 cookie-cutter outlets, each restaurant is made to feel like a local business. Booths are phased out in favor of larger, more open tables, suitable for hanging out, and so-called small plates are served to encourage sharing.
After 31 years, Bertucci’s is courting a new, youthful clientele in an effort known within the company’s Northborough headquarters as “The Millennial Project.’’ One of Boston’s most tech-savvy marketing agencies, SapientNitro, has been hired to launch a new campaign with an emphasis on digital media. The chain, which has 95 restaurants in 10 Northeastern states and the District of Columbia, last week aired new television and radio ads, introduced new menus, and posted the first episode of the YouTube series featuring head chef Jeff Tenner.
“We’re contemporizing the brand,’’ said Skip Weldon, senior vice president of marketing at Bertucci’s. “We’re moving into a new space.’’
Why revamp the whole brand? The clientele that grew up with Bertucci’s, the baby boomers who embraced wood-fired pizza in the 1980s and 1990s, are getting older and going out less, company executives said. If it wants to grow, the chain needs to attract “Millennials,’’ loosely defined as consumers between the ages of 18 and 30, said Michael Maione, head of the Bertucci’s account at SapientNitro.
“Long term, Bertucci’s has no choice in the matter,’’ said Dennis Lombardi, executive vice president of food service strategies at WD Partners, a design and development firm based in Columbus, Ohio. As the baby boomers move on, “the torch is being passed to the Millennials,’’ he said.
Founded in 1981 by Joey Crugnale, who opened the original restaurant in Somerville, Bertucci’s grew quickly in its first two decades. In 1998, Crugnale was ousted in a hostile takeover, and Bertucci’s Corp. is now owned by Jacobson Partners, a New York private equity firm.
Growth at the chain, and in the general “casual dining Italian’’ sector, has been relatively flat over the last five years, said Darren Tristano, executive vice president at Technomic Inc., a Chicago research and consulting firm. Total sales at Bertucci’s during 2011 were $200 million, up just 0.5 percent over the previous year.
Tristano said the new emphasis on Millennials and digital media is a good strategy for a chain that is looking for more dramatic growth.
“Millennials spend less per ticket than baby boomers, but they come in more often,’’ he said. “More importantly, they are your future.’’
Cory Ip, a 28-year-old program manager at SapientNitro, said the agency has identified three primary ways that the restaurant can appeal to younger diners. “Millennials crave unique dining experiences, not chain restaurants,’’ she said. “We also like companies with a mission. And we like to share. I can’t remember the last time that I ate at a restaurant when I didn’t share the food with my friends.’’
Weldon said the company’s aim is to translate those preferences into the revamped Bertucci’s.
Unique? Bertucci’s will be branding each restaurant according to its location: “Bertucci’s Waltham,’’ for example. A prominent chalkboard will feature local specials and notes from the restaurant staff.
Mission? Bertucci’s marketing will promote the idea that the chain has a passion for its “hand-crafted’’ brick oven pizzas.
As for sharing, the restaurant is reducing the number of booths in favor of open high-top and farmhouse-style tables, and emphasizing small plates and shareable items on its menu. It’s also updating its interiors - more contemporary, less old-world Italian - and has redesigned its menu.
To get the word out, SapientNitro has built digital media into a new advertising campaign. Bertucci’s previous advertising mix was only 2 percent digital; radio was the largest segment. By contrast, the new campaign, aimed at Millennials, will be 48 percent digital and online. The chain is pushing buttons on all the usual social media networks: Twitter, Facebook, Pinterest, and Instagram. It has created a new mobile device-friendly “landing page’’ designed to make it easy to order takeout from a smartphone. And Tenner will appear in cooking segments on YouTube. “It puts a face to the Bertucci’s brand,’’ Tenner said. “It gives us an authentic feel, more like an independent restaurant.’’
The obvious risk is that Bertucci’s could alienate its current clientele without drawing enough new customers. Bertucci’s executives said they are treading carefully to avoid driving away their core: the baby boomers who have patronized the chain since the early 1980s, and continue to do so. Those customers have options, including other Italian-themed restaurant chains such as Olive Garden and Uno Chicago Grill.
“Baby boomers are going to become lighter buyers as they get older, but our research has shown that casual dining Italian will still grow,’’ said Bonnie Riggs, a restaurant industry analyst with the NPD Group, a market research company based in Port Washington, N.Y. “Boomers still perceive casual dining Italian as a good value.’’
Joyce Lee, the chain’s director of marketing, doesn’t think the new campaign will push away older customers.
“Most of our social media is geared towards Millennials,’’ she said, “because they are primarily the ones who will be using these services. Our core customers won’t even see many of these initiatives. So it’s not replacing one group with another. It’s growing the entire pie.’’
Lee paused for a beat, and added, “That would be a pizza pie, of course.’’