Life Alive quietly opened a flagship organic café near Boston University to showcase its new look and feel, and offer uplifting communal experiences. But the café’s soft opening went unnoticed by press months before PR was first engaged and it was already considered old news. With restaurants popping up every day—hundreds each year (Boston Restaurant Talk)—promoting the café would be a challenge.
Boston-based Adam Ritchie Brand Direction was asked to reach food-focused, active and educated consumers of all genders, ages 18 to 38, in Metro Boston and beyond, drive awareness, engagement, demand and sales, solidify the brand as a top healthy eating destination, position the owner as a fast casual dining authority and establish the new location as an experimental concept hub—all by the end of the year (within five months).
Secondary research showed fast casual and vegetarian options were “exploding” in the market (Boston Globe). “Millennial food sophisticates” influenced our target audience (SmartBrief). They believed food represented culture and saw it as “an expression of who they are” (NPD). They were especially interested in the story behind their food, wanted “behind the scenes” food prep content and preferred “small batch and artisanal” (University of Exeter). Instagram was their social platform of choice (Pew). And 81% of them believed they could have an impact on social issues by using social media (Cone).
For primary research, we invited a focus group of Gen Z Instagrammers to the café where we collected their thoughts on the brand, the new space, companies in their feeds and what they considered post- and comment-worthy. We observed which menu items caught their attention, and how they interacted with the food and with each other. Color, customization and community were actionable takeaways.
If food was deeply personal, small batch was a preference, and presentation was as important as flavor, we would follow these insights somewhere new. We’d handpick a group of influencers from overlapping circles, work with them to invent custom offerings from scratch and share them with the world.
Read on to see why Adam Ritchie Brand Direction won a Silver Medal in the “Best Food and Beverage Campaign” category in Bulldog Reporter’s 2019 PR Awards.
We consulted with one of the city’s most respected Instagrammers to help us identify and recruit nine micro-influencers spanning three categories: food, healthy living and student life. Our criteria included thousands of authentic followers leaving substantive comments, ethnic/gender diversity to represent the openness of the brand, and trust within their communities by regularly participating in panels and events.
Life Alive would collaborate with these influencers on new menu items, champion them by naming the dishes after their Instagram handles and donate a portion of proceeds to the Instagrammer’s chosen wellness nonprofit. We would offer them a unique creative experience that went beyond promotion.
We aimed to inspire a contagious level of emotion among our influencers by treating them like an elite cohort, moving through an experience together and mapping the path which would allow them to be the heroes of their own online stories.
Epic storytelling has always revolved around food. To ensure the program fit Life Alive’s personality and blended time-tested and modern storytelling traditions, we approached our planning like brand mythology.
We took a page from Joseph Campbell’s hero’s journey and applied it to influencer PR. “Mix It Up” would be a quest with four chapters. Chapter 1, The Call to Adventure: a welcome dinner for the entire group, where the owner would brief them on the idea. Chapter 2, Meeting the Mentor: one-on-one prep sessions in the kitchen with the brand’s culinary director. Chapter 3, The Transformation: their social handles turning into signature dishes sold for one week. Chapter 4, The Return: their delivery of funds to their chosen nonprofits. Structuring the program this way created four opportunities for each influencer to willingly post about Life Alive as they moved through their journey: a scenario where millions of targeted social impressions could be sustained across several months on a $0 PR expense budget.
Our press strategy would break news of Life Alive’s next planned location by showcasing the existing flagship café as its template, and highlight the owner’s fast-casual dining expertise by positioning Life Alive as the third act in a play which began when he founded Panera and Au Bon Pain.
Implementation & Execution
An intimate welcome dinner brought together our handpicked food, healthy living and college lifestyle influencers at the flagship café. It had the feel of an initiation combined with a family reunion as our cohort sat around a single table with the owner. They all opted in and we secured our first chapter of posts. The one-on-one prep sessions in the months that followed brought each collaborator into the kitchen, where the culinary director set out ingredients and guided them through their Mix It Up creation. We asked them to share flavor memories from their personal backgrounds. One made deconstructed tacos to honor her Mexican heritage and said, “They taste like my grandma’s frijoles!” Another made Asian peanut noodles to share her memories of home cooking. Another made a Mediterranean-inspired falafel salad to recognize her Greek roots. We helped document their experiences and equipped them with content for their second chapter of posts where they teased their Life Alive collaborations.
We worked with Life Alive’s design team on point-of-sale materials to promote the unveiling of each dish. We introduced one per week over several months, worked with our collaborators to alert their followers and celebrated each launch with them, achieving the third chapter of posts. Finally, we invited them to document the delivery of the funds they helped raise, for chapter four.
For press offsite, we conducted a series of food drops to bring the Life Alive experience directly to editors. Each received a small taste of the menu and a press kit with a pitch about the recent opening and the next location, personally delivered by the culinary director and the PR team. For press onsite, we invited national food media to the café to view the space and interview the owner about his legendary fast casual experience in the context of Life Alive’s expansion. Then we fed the influencer program directly into the press program as a fresh angle, and presented the whole Life Alive story for a well-balanced meal.
Emotion would drive the posts, and everything came down to how well we could inspire our influencers to post willingly. One was moved to tears during her prep session. Another told us having her own dish was a dream come true and made her feel like she’d arrived. Another brought his parents, who said how proud they were. Another said she’d never had the ability to create beyond her photo feed before.
A total of 15.4 million target consumers were reached through earned social. We tripled the brand’s social interactions through influencer posts on the experimental dishes and generated a 4x increase in demand with earned comments and shares like, “I Def have to get this! All my fav things” (tastes2totango), “Omg I wanna try this so bad,” (lizzzeats) and “@hannah_meiseles we need to go here” (northyeastern). It drew owned post comments like, “Can we go here @dianabarrie 🙂 🙂 :)” (leannkosior), “@smgs219 omg go go go! I’m so jealous” (lilmarissaleigh) and “@rachel_nadolny omg definitely need to get this” (hmonbleau).
Meanwhile, 31.6 million target consumers were reached through earned press—31 times the previous period. Life Alive was solidified as a top healthy eating destination in the resulting coverage which included, “The best healthy restaurants in Boston” (bon appetit), “Life Alive is a favorite, and made it their mission to provide you with tons of healthy options” (Fitt Boston) and “Life Alive makes healthy eating delicious, accessible” (BrooklineHub). We positioned the owner as a fast casual authority bringing his extensive fast casual expertise to the brand: “Panera founder has quietly launched a fast-casual empire” (Food & Wine) and “Panera and Au Bon Pain founder Ron Shaich is driving Life Alive’s next era of expansion” (Eater). The Boston Herald called our Mix It Up dishes “recipes from local tastemakers.”
We contributed to a 6% increase in flagship café quarterly sales. Beyond the objectives, the program produced content for more than 1/3 of the brand’s social posts, sold 509 special dishes through PR and PR-driven point-of-sale and raised $2,250 for wellness nonprofits. Five items created by the campaign even became permanent menu options, where they continue helping the company’s bottom line today.
PR drove product development, marshalled the client’s internal resources and carried an idea across platforms. It owned idea creation and cross-channel storytelling as only PR can. Mix It Up put Life Alive at the center of the city’s healthy living, food and student scenes, elevated the brand to the national level, nourished nonprofits and baked an authentic personal story intro every digital dish.