Are You a Red Ocean or Blue Ocean Operator?

Main image: blocberry / iStock / Getty Images Plus; Additional images: ArchOneZ / iStock / Getty Images Plus

In the market you have probably sensed that the waters have changed. The easy pickings of yesterday have been replaced with a steady stream of more restaurants and bars opening in your market taking not only your staff, they are taking your guests.

The waters are red with blood from a saturated market that just cannibalizes itself. You are in the category called “average” and that is the same as being a commodity. Welcome to what is known as the red ocean.

Out on the horizon the water is calm and blue. There is little competition and there are plenty of staff and guests. You are now standing out in front and you don’t fear competition because you don’t have much. Your brand is considered innovative and inspiring. Welcome to the blue ocean.

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Red ocean strategy - Are You a Red Ocean or Blue Ocean Restaurant?

Competition is for Suckers 

If you remember the bell curve in school you know that the majority of students fall into the C grade range. This is average. The problem is that average is the new standard and being average is also where all the competition is. That red ocean is full of other sharks just looking to gobble up your staff and your guests. They entice your staff with a few dollars more per hour or they offer guests discounts for food and drink.

When you’re in the red ocean you fight back by playing the I-will-see-your-move-and-go-one-better game. It’s a keeping up with the Jones mentality that is very similar to what psychologists call the hedonic treadmill. They do a 5 for $5 happy hour promotion and you counter with a 4 for $4 menu.

The red ocean is laced with average brands that would rather give everything away just to beat the others. This is very similar to the bucket of crabs mentality: They never put a lid on a bucket of crabs because as soon as one gets above the other, another crab grabs it and pulls it back down.

In the red ocean you want your slice of the pie (market) and you fight for table scraps. Staff just makes the rounds from one red ocean restaurant to another. Guests are more loyal to the best deal than the actual brand, so you compete.

Blue ocean strategy - Are You a Red Ocean or Blue Ocean Operator?

Getting to the Blue Ocean

Looking at the bell curve again, we find the straight-A students. These restaurants and bars are the venues the average admire. They don’t follow trends, they set trends. C students look at the A students as smarter and just gifted. The truth is that they work harder and are more consistent.

C students and average restaurants throw in the towel way too easily, accepting where they are as the way it is. To make it to the blue ocean restaurant waters you need to change your mindset. Becoming a blue ocean restaurant takes a renewed commitment to stand out and establish your brand as the leader in your market! How?

Revisit Your Core Values

If you have never explored your core values (what you stand for), now is the time. Knowing your core values and exactly who you are as a brand is the first step to swimming out of the red ocean.

Read this: A Core Value Walks into a Bar

People identify with brands that align with their own set of core values. How will you attract better talent and guests without knowing what you believe in? You can’t.

Become Transparent 

Today your restaurant or bar is constantly viewed through the lens of social media and the internet. Your digital image is very mission critical to getting into blue ocean water. People want to see who has aligned themselves with your brand.

Once again, like attracts like. Buy your produce from a local farm? Showcase that. Getting vodka from a local distillery that uses a family recipe handed down for four generations? Tell the story.

Go Beyond the Average

Setting yourself up to break free from the red ocean also requires you to do things other don’t (or won’t). Burger restaurants are a dime a dozen these days. Most restaurants and bars have at least a version of a burger featured on their menu. How do you go beyond the norm?

  • Maybe it’s grass-fed beef cooked in organic ghee?
  • A signature burger sauce that is classified as a “secret”?
  • Maybe unique milkshakes that use real ice cream and local heavy cream from a nearby dairy?
  • Maybe some of your signature cocktails are made with you own burnt orange simple syrup? 

You can blend in or you can stand out—it’s your choice.

Do the Work

Getting to the blue ocean requires dedication and total commitment. You can’t go half ass on this. You must be willing to dig down and take accountability for everything that occurs in your restaurant.

  • Holding onto lazy and incompetent staff? Get rid of them!
  • Not sure what everything on your menu costs? Time to update your recipe cards!
  • Marketing every now and then? Double down and increase your posts in order to keep your brand positioned as top-of-mind!

Become Obsessed with the Details

Getting to the blue ocean also requires you to develop OAD, or Obsessive Attention to Details. Re-examine everything, from how your team answers the phone to packing a meal for delivery. They say the devil is in the details and that is true.

What separates Apple’s devices from other phones on the market is the extreme detail that goes into everything that makes the user experience memorable. They purposely designed the box your new iPhone comes in to open in 7 seconds to increase the feeling of anticipation. They want to create positive emotions around their product, thus increasing the emotional bond between brand and user.

Only around 5% of all restaurants and bars will reach the blue ocean waters. The number one reason they fail to reach their destination is they give up when the going gets tough. When you truly want something, you put all you can into it—your heart and soul. Don’t sell yourself short anymore. Don’t waste one more day competing with others. Make a stand to do more than only own the market—dominate it!

As Ray Kroc, the legendary founder of McDonald’s, once said, “If any of my competitors were drowning, I'd stick a hose in their mouth and turn on the water. It is ridiculous to call this an industry. This is not. This is rat eat rat, dog eat dog. I'll kill 'em, and I'm going to kill 'em before they kill me. You're talking about the American way—of survival of the fittest.”

Is that a little brutal to say? Maybe. Is it required to get to the blue ocean? Definitely.