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The casual dining restaurant segment is definitely in general decline. Some CEOs in the industry, such as Red Robin’s Denny Marie Post, don’t believe casual Dining is ever coming back.

But Olive Garden defies that theory, reporting 11 straight quarters of same-store sales growth. And to top it off, management says Millennials are the reason for their success.

Wait a minute…Millennials are driving sales at a dine-in casual dining restaurant concept? Yes! The reason? Darden CEO Gene Lee and his Olive Garden team have been investing for some time to make themselves attractive to the new, dominant demographic group called Millennials. They took the time to address Olive Garden’s Brand Position.

Olive Garden has been laser-focused on food, service and atmosphere in their restaurants. Those are the keys for any restaurant brand. And remember, atmosphere refers to dine-in but also the digital ordering and delivery points where guests interact with the brand.

We see restaurant clients all the time these days looking to work on “fixing sales”. And as we dig into things it always, always, always comes back to the same thing: bad brand positioning.

Operators by design tend to focus on the tactical…things they can do to try to create immediate response. Menu change, a freshening of the look of the store, or most likely, a marketing push with a strong call to action to drive fast response. All of the above will be underfunded. And NONE of them will produce the required long-term results management and franchisees are looking for. The missing element is brand position.

Decision-makers ignore the reality that starting in 2008 and accelerating now, brand positions MUST adapt. Domino’s Pizza, Starbucks, Olive Garden and Panera were out front on this. McDonald’s is storming back. But most brands like Red Robin, Applebee’s and Pizza Hut did not adapt and are paying the price.

Fix your brand position first. Make time to do it right. Everything else gets much easier.

Chris Petersen is CEO at On Brand Media, providing solutions for clients navigating an increasingly diverse media landscape. Practices include Brand Development, Marketing, Customer Experience, Media Buying, Creative & Technology and Restaurant industry expertise. Learn more at and contact Chris at

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