To understand the Olive Garden brand and its current troubles, apparently we need look no further than their unlimited breadsticks. While a basket of warm bread is welcome at most any dining table, Olive Garden breadsticks are delivered piping hot, with a touch of spice and olive oil. They can provide a quick burst of satiation, especially after a 45-minute wait for a table. They are, by all accounts, delicious, if not entirely healthy, and they are a staple of the Olive Garden brand, which was once the darling of the casual dining industry.
Alas, to everything there is a season and Olive Garden has made a turn for the worse as sales have declined in the last few years amid a growing number of casual dining options and diners who are being more careful with their budgets. Olive Garden has tried new menu items, value pricing and recently changed its logo, but sales continue to move in the wrong direction.
So much so that Starboard Value, a chief investor in Olive Garden’s parent company, Darden, wrote a 300-page analysis of what they feel is wrong with Olive Garden and the managers who are running the chain. Three hundred pages leaves room for a long list of complaints, but a focal point of the report was the Italian restaurant’s iconic breadsticks. According to Starboard, the official policy on breadsticks is to bring out one per person plus one extra, but servers have been bringing out far more than that at one time. But this complaint was not one of excess, it was one of quality.
“Darden management readily admits that after sitting just seven minutes, the bread sticks deteriorate in quality,” the report says. What Starboard wants is for the breadsticks to be served at their height of flavorfulness, if that’s a word, and not be allowed to cool off to the point of resembling ordinary bread, or even “hot dog buns,” as the report noted.
Who knew a breadstick could have such import to a brand? Still, while the overall importance of a single branding element may be overstated, it can be a powerful symbol of the brand that inspires action by its owners.
Some years ago I worked with a client that delivers large quantities of product to its customers by truck on a daily basis. Early on, their senior management confided in me that there was an internal debate raging about the cleanliness of their trucks. For decades, the company had prided itself on keeping their trucks exceptionally clean. This required a regular schedule of washing and scrubbing, made doubly hard by bad weather. But when EPA regulations required controlling the runoff from the washing process, the company began to wash much less often.
I should note that the cleanliness of their trucks had virtually nothing to do with the quality of their product or their service, but the internal debate was whether or not it mattered. As it turned out, it probably did. During the course of interviewing some of their larger customers, two of them mentioned it. “They used to have the cleanest trucks around,” said one, “Now they’re only clean when it rains.” Ouch. This customer went on to comment that maybe there was link to that and broader issues he was having with the company. Whether there was or not, the idea was in his head that clean trucks were a good part of the brand, and dirty trucks diminished it. And, while the purpose of the interviews was not to settle the clean truck debate, and we included no planned questions about the subject, it was clearly an issue for some customers and raised issues for how the brand should move forward.
So, something as a simple as a hot breadstick or a clean truck can have far-reaching implications for a brand. And these issues can become the rallying points of resuscitating one as well. Although I doubt that Olive Garden would solve all its problems by delivering its breadsticks in pristine condition 100 percent of the time, I suspect that focusing on that kind of detail will help them improve their brand experience and, ultimately, their sales. The next time you’re in an Olive Garden restaurant, count the breadsticks and then ask yourself, is this brand headed in the right direction again?
As published in the Central Penn Business Journal and Lehigh Valley Business.