Frequency: How a Waitress Can Teach You to Make Your Marketing Message Stick

A waitress gave me a powerful advertising lesson a few years ago.

I checked into the Cedar Rapids hotel on a Sunday night in early October, and settled in for the week.

Monday morning, before heading to the TV station, I went down to the hotel restaurant for breakfast. Glancing at the menu, I decided to order oatmeal. I don’t always eat properly on the road, but I can usually get in a healthy breakfast before my self-discipline breaks down.

When the oatmeal arrived at my table, it was anything but healthy. The top layer was some kind of custard, and the rest of it was loaded with sugar and other stuff. It tasted quite good, but it did not mean good things for my cholesterol count.

I called the waitress over and asked her whether the restaurant offered just plain oatmeal. She told me that this was the way the restaurant always did it. Then she paused, and asked me how long I was staying at the hotel. I told her I would be there all week.

“My name’s Jackie,” she said. “When you come down tomorrow, ask for me, and I’ll have the chef just make you a bowl of regular oatmeal.”

Tuesday morning I came down to the restaurant and asked for Jackie. “You mentioned you might be able to get me some regular oatmeal,” I said. “Let me see what I can do,” she replied. 10 minutes later she brought me a bowl of plain oatmeal.

Wednesday morning, I waved to her as I sat down. “Oatmeal, and a to-go cup of coffee with the check?” she asked. “Yes,” I replied, surprised that she had remembered about the coffee. Thursday and Friday, we didn’t even have to discuss it. As soon as she saw me, she put the order in with the kitchen. And when she brought the check, the to-go cup of coffee was right there with it.

Three weeks later, I was back in Cedar Rapids at the same hotel. Monday morning, when Jackie saw me she said, “Welcome back, Mr. Bernstein! Plain oatmeal, right?”. The first day, I had to ask for the coffee-to-go; the rest of the week it all went like clockwork.

The reason I was able to get this special treatment is that I stayed in the same place for an extended period of time, and ate at the same restaurant every morning. Seeing the same faces every day, I got to know them and they got to know me. Over time, one of the waitresses got to know exactly what I wanted, and I didn’t have to start over each morning.

While I was at the hotel, I met another business traveler who was in Cedar Rapids for a couple of days. From there, he was going to Des Moines for two days, and then to St. Louis. He was also having his breakfasts in a hotel restaurant – but every couple of days it would be a different restaurant. He had to take whatever was on the menu.

Here’s the advertising lesson: 

With limited resources, you have a choice when you decide to advertise:

  • You can spread your budget out, and try to reach as many people as possible by doing a little bit of a lot of things. You will be advertising frequently. Lots of people will see you, but they won’t remember you.
  • Or you can take your limited resources and focus them into a small number of places. You will be advertising with frequency. You will reach fewer people — but the people you reach will respond.

The other business traveler — with a couple of days in Cedar Rapids, a couple of days in Des Moines, and a brief stop in St. Louis  — had the equivalent of a “media mix.” A little TV, a little radio, a couple of bus sides. He was seen by more people than I was, but he didn’t get to know them and they didn’t get to know him. When he sat down for breakfast, he got what everyone else got.

I had the same resources — five days — but I spent them all in one place. The same people saw me over and over again, and by the end of those five days the wait staff knew me.

The other guy was eating out frequently; I was eating out with frequency. Which one of us did better?


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