Strategically sound menu board optimization generates significant returns on investment. We routinely see 5 percent to 10 percent increases in overall sales. Optimized menu boards can also shave precious seconds off the order process, speeding throughput and boosting customer satisfaction and loyalty.

Simply put, the menu board is your No. 1 sales tool. A strategically designed menu board helps customers decide what to order. But time and again we've seen that no element of the marketing mix is as overlooked or as underestimated in its ability to increase sales and ROI.

Consider: Research shows the menu board can influence 56 percent of customers and 74 percent say that an easy-to-read menu board is a top priority. In a recent discussion, the CEO of a quick-service restaurant chain added, "Menu board optimization is one of the best investments my company can make. It far exceeds almost any other strategy I could pursue to increase profits."

Many menu boards underperform because they are strategically weak. They don't incorporate business objectives, nor do they take into consideration any understanding of how customers actually use menu boards. Effective design and menu board optimization represent much more than a graphic exercise. Rather, it follows a structured, analytical approach.

Over the years, we've identified seven critical truths that collectively result in world-class menu board strategy and design. All menu board reengineering projects should follow these absolutes.

Absolute 1: Leverage Hot Spotshotspots

Identify menu board "hot spots," areas where customers tend to look first and most frequently, and place the best-selling and highest margin items here. The interior menu board and drive-thru menu board have different hot spots. And for the interior board, the hot spots can vary depending upon where the restaurant places the primary order point.

Absolute 2: Real Estate by the Numbers

Conducting a "sales to space" analysis helps determine if a restaurant has allocated the ideal amount of menu board "real estate" to best-selling items. The objective is to give best-selling items or categories more space on the menu board than slower moving items or categories. You should also dedicate more space to the items/categories that contribute the most to your bottom line. Using your sales analysis, create a simple all-text schematic of your current menu board. Does a category's percent contribution to sales have a one-to-one relationship to the percentage of real estate it occupies on the menu board? This exercise will lead to an optimized schematic that represents a better sales-to-space ratio.

Absolute 3: Location, Location, Location

All brands track sales, but it is astonishing how few use this data to help create a strategic menu board layout. An analysis of sales and profits should drive where you place products on your menu board. Some menu items sell better than others. Some contribute more to the bottom line and should be more prominent on a menu board. Using sales analysis also helps identify which items a concept should simply eliminate to free up space for new items or make more room for those items driving the business.

Start by creating a spreadsheet of your annual sales. Sort this list by percent of sales. What percentage of total sales does each of the top 5 to 10 items represent? Sort this list by category for organizational purposes. Do this analysis for both your combo listings and general listings. You will use this information in subsequent steps to better position best-selling items on the menu board.

Absolute 4: Launch, Sustain, Core

The concept of "launch, sustain, core" is part of a dynamic menu board management plan — a strategy for dealing with changes to menu board content. The elements of this include:

Launch: When you introduce a new product, where does it go on the menu board? Has your menu board strategy allowed space for introducing new items? It should. In fact, research shows that establishing a designated part of the menu board for new product introductions is helpful to customers. Customers become accustomed to looking at this section of the menu board to "see what's new." An optimized menu board strategy designates a specific portion of the menu board for the "launch" of LTO's and new or seasonal items.

Sustain: What happens when these new items become popular and successful? Is there a strategy for sustaining these items on the menu board following their introduction? Where will they go? Is there room on the menu board? Should lower selling items be removed to make room? It's important that an optimized menu board strategy take these issues into consideration.

Core: An optimized menu board strategy also addresses your "core" items. These items drive your business and account for the majority of sales. Never compromise these listings, even when adding new items to the menus. Is there a strategy in place to manage these critical listings on your menu board and to ensure that core items are always the "hero" on the menu board?

Absolute 5: Think Like a Customer

Learning to think like a customer will help you to optimize your menu board's navigation. The menu board's design should sync with how customers order a meal. Research plays a role in finding out clues to improve menu board navigation. Finding out how a customer orders a meal can help this process. What do they order first, second, third?

Absolute 6: Brand It

Great branding is more than a logo. Branding should extend to every aspect of the business that involves the customer, especially the menu board. With a branded menu board and consistent branding throughout, the customer will easily be able to differentiate a brand from its competitors and will be able to see what makes the brand unique. By increasing the branding on your menu board you can heighten a customer's trust and overall experience.

When designing your optimized menu boards, keep in mind simplicity and ease of use should always be the number-one priority for an optimized menu board. Be careful not to get carried away with clever designs and unnecessary graphic details. Again: The number-one priority is to make the design easy to read and navigate.

Absolute 7: Metrics Matter

Now that you have developed an enhanced strategy to optimize your menu board, it is time to put it to the test. It is extremely important to objectively measure the success of your menu board optimization efforts versus key metrics and decision criteria. Things to look for are sales increases, ticket increases, improved thru-put, improved customer satisfaction and an overall happier franchisee. Thoughtful research can be helpful in this instance.

Support the Menu Board with Staged Messaging

BRO100SCN.BYB.ExteriorLORESBefore arriving at the main menu board, staged messaging helps pre-sell high-margin items. Staged messaging can also help customers understand complex menu offerings. You can help accomplish this by presenting a series of short, simple, related messages with visuals over three consecutive zones: entry, pre-order and menu board. For example:

  • Entry Zone: Introduce the idea of ordering a combo meal.
  • Pre-Order Zone: Continue to further communicate by showing key/featured combo offerings.
  • Order/Menu Board Zone: Close the deal here. List all of the combo offerings on the main menu board with pricing and additional details about the combo.