Not too long ago I took my wife out to dinner, something I don't do enough. We went to a local place here in Austin. The overall experience was wonderful.
When we got the bill, I noticed something a little unusual at the bottom: A separate fee of 3% of the total bill had been added to pay for health insurance for the restaurant employees. My wife reminded me that the menu had a disclosure about this 3% fee and that the waiter would remove it if asked.
Since the service was great and I want people to have health insurance, I was fine with it. The next week I posted a picture of the receipt to LinkedIn. Within about a week, it hit over half a million views and 680 comments.
Part of the reason for the virality of this post was the political lens through which people view things these days. Some saw the fee as a subsidized benefit (i.e., additional taxation) and others as a business just trying to be transparent about providing a benefit for their employees.
This additional fee was not mandated and the restaurant could have just as easily decided to embed the expense for medical insurance within the meal cost. But this business decided to put it out there and let their customers know where its priorities lay — caring about their employees, so that their employees would in turn care about the meals and service they were providing.
It's an example of a clever way to both fund and communicate a company's priorities. The message for retirement plan advisers: Think about outside-the-box ways to communicate your values, because communicating values to your target market is important for business.
People with a right-leaning lens viewed this as a political stunt and as an indication of increased taxation. (As a reminder, this was not a government-mandated tax and was 100% optional). People with a left-leaning lens viewed it as a way for the restaurant to communicate that it cares about its employees' well-being.
Those with a negative perception did not think to view the fee through the eyes of the restaurant's customers. This particular restaurant is smaller and (in my opinion) positions itself as a place for high-end foodies. One could assume that this demographic is going to be in favor of anything that highlights the efforts the restaurant is making to care for its employees as much as its food. The owner of the restaurant also commented that one of the reasons for having this optional fee was to signal this message to its target demographic.
Signaling something that is important to your target demographic will likely only help build a better relationship between you and your potential customers. Here are two examples from opposite sides of the political spectrum.
First, REI, an outdoor-gear retailer, was closed this past Thanksgiving and Black Friday for the fourth year in a row. It is insane for a retail business to close during the busiest shopping period of the year. But according to Jerry Stritzke, REI's former president and CEO, the business results have been stellar.
In an interview last year, Mr. Stritzke said that in 2015, the first year REI closed during this time, the company posted its largest-ever membership growth and increased revenues by 9.3%. It seems as if REI's target market responded well to the company's break from the crowd and rewarded it with lots of business.
Let's also look at Chick-fil-A. The fast-food chain has become a lightning rod over the years because of its unconcealed efforts to convey its Christian principles. One might think that inserting its Christian beliefs into so many aspects of its business — closing on Sundays, using certain language in the job application process, and comments made by the company — might lead to underwhelming business results.
Not so for Chick-fil-A, which is poised to become the third-largest fast-food chain in the U.S. in the next year or two. According to some data, its compound annual growth rate beats any of the top 10 largest fast-food chains in the U.S. by a good distance.
And what's the company's competitive edge? Don't say a better sandwich! In my opinion, it's communicating its values and thereby building a deeper relationship with customers.
The lesson here: When you are communicating with your target audience, be sure not to forget what your values are. Maybe more than ever, customers want to do business with people who share their values.
Aaron Pottichen is a senior vice president at Alliant Retirement Consulting.