Baked nachos served right inside a Doritos bag? A burger sandwiched between two quesadillas instead of a bun? How about a Caesar cocktail containing a skewer of jumbo shrimp and other garnishes, meant to be a meal in itself?
If you've ever wondered about the quirky and bizarre concoctions sometimes served at Milestones, Montana's or Kelsey's, Dave Colebrook is happy to explain.
Colebrook is the vice-president of marketing for Cara Foods, the conglomerate that owns all of those restaurants, along with Harvey's and Swiss Chalet. When he and his associates sit down to sample new menu items these days, they don't only consider the taste, cost and value of the dishes.
"We want to see the wow factor," says Colebrook. "We ask ourselves, is it Insta-worthy?"
In other words, the dish needs to be so visually striking that diners can't resist taking a picture to post on Instagram — or Snapchat, Facebook or any of the other popular social networks.
"Whenever we launch something, we always track it on social media to see if it's creating buzz," Colebrook explains. "Usually when you create buzz, you create traffic and sales, and it all works."
Buzz builds business
Cara is just one of many Canadian companies embracing a new form of promotion, where special products and experiences are created with social sharing in mind. Not only will happy customers do that for free, but it can attract more attention than traditional advertising.
The simple truth is that these days, people are much more likely to look at a post from a contact in their social network than they are to look at a sponsored ad.
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And customers are always searching for Insta-worthy material themselves, according to marketer Tony Chapman, who helped clients create viral campaigns during his years as CEO of his own firm, Capital C.
"Consumers every day are meeting at campfires and those campfires are happening online," he says. "They need stuff to put online, they need logs to put on that fire. They need to talk about how interesting they are, what they discovered — 'I heard this incredible independent artist, or look at this picture of me, I'm hanging off a tower, I'm riding a bike around the seawall in Vancouver.'"
While having lunch at a Montana's restaurant in a Toronto suburb, Crystal Hunter explains why she decided to take a picture of her Los Doritos Nachos.
"It's fun to share," she exclaims, adding that novelty is a factor, too. "I haven't seen something like that before. And also it's so colourful. What I like about social media is it's very visual."
Canada's first 'selfie room'
Doomies, a vegan restaurant in Toronto, hasn't spent a cent on print advertising, yet it does a bustling business with hour-long lineups out the door on weekends, says director of communications Cara Galloway.
"We have over 10,000 Facebook followers, over 15,000 on Instagram," she says proudly. "We've really capitalized on social media to get the word out there about the restaurant. We'd be paying upwards of tens of thousands of dollars to advertise, but really we've just gotten that free."
The restaurant has even constructed what it calls "the first selfie room in Canada," decorated with vegan-themed cartoons, as yet another way to encourage social media posts.
The effort appears to be paying off. Several Doomies customers who spoke to CBC News said they had learned about the restaurant from a post on Instagram.
"Once you see the picture, you are really attracted to the place and you want to check it out, hop on the trend," says Carl Jarentio, while enjoying a late lunch with a friend.
Easy does it
Other businesses, such as ax-throwing club BATL and ice cream shop Sweet Jesus, have created special areas on site that feature their logo and are designed to be a perfect backdrop for a selfie or photo.
It's not surprising that marketers would make every effort to leverage social sharing. The glory days of advertising, when brands and companies could reach the mass market with high-circulation newspapers or weekly television series with tens of millions of regular viewers, are long gone.
The internet and an explosion of television options has fractured the media landscape, scattering audiences far and wide.
These days, businesses have to use every type of media available if they want to send a message to consumers.
But what happens if people realize their fun-loving posts serve another, corporate purpose?
"When consumers feel they're being used or abused by marketers, there is a push back," warns Chapman. "They're very negative on your brand instantaneously and they often vote with their wallet."
He says the trick with social marketing is a gentle touch.
"What you have to do with social media is just plant the seed, and hope that the consumer grabs onto it, waters it, grows it and makes it their own. And when they do that, it's because of their own initiative, it's not a forced initiative."
Dave Colebrook of Cara agrees. "I think people are very savvy," he says. "I think people are smart and they know what they're doing. And we're not forcing people to do it. It's just about being part of the conversation."