TD Conversations: Saket Gupta, Vice President, Marketing, Black Sheep Hotels

Seasoned hotelier and marketing strategist Saket Gupta talks about the rise of an agile, data-driven approach when it comes to the business of food and hospitality marketing and more. 

Artificial Intelligence, influencer engagement, SEO-driven content, hashtag marketing, blog integration. 

When it comes to food and marketing, there is little denying how social media has impacted the food landscape in the past decade. From opening new avenues for engagement to changing the rules of brand presentation, these AI-created platforms have become the essential tools in every marketing arsenal with better impact than conventional methods. One person who knows the social game better than most is strategy specialist Saket Gupta. As the VP, Marketing of Mars-World, Gupta has been the mind behind the branding of many outlets including the iconic Pizza By The Bay, Eat Around the Corner, Gordon House, Rokeby Manor, and now the entire banquet of Black Sheep Hotels in Scotland. What made the marketing of the Mars brand, says Gupta, “different from other conventional hospitality brands was its composition. Each of the outlets was not only food and theme centric—and this included two hotels, Gordon House and the previously owned Waterstones Hotel and Club—but also needed a niche clientele.”

Saket gupta of black sheep hotels
Saket Gupta is all for harnessing the power of social media but with some caveats

This meant that the marketing frame for each had to be restructured and tweaked to suit the brand, its vision, and most importantly the kind of market it was targeting. In most cases, adds Gupta, “we had to create the market, given that most brands were young and aspirational and needed that kind of crowd too.” 

That, including the growing girth of social media, took him on the unchartered path of Artificial Intelligence, which at that point had a process used inside the industry rather than in marketing. The era was of Facebook, and Mars Enterprise became one of the initial users of the space for engagement. Recalls Gupta, “It began as an add-on to the conventional strategy of print advertisements, stories and, of course, a newsletter to our patrons.” A decade later, not just Mars but the entire food and hospitality industry is found in some measure or the other on every social platform possible—and this includes TikTok, Pinterest, and even Snapchat. A presence that was used to the utmost impact during the past two years not just as a marketing and engagement tool but also as an investment that would drive offline business soon. A big reason for this, according to the marketing expert, was not only the outreach but the fact that every second nearly 12 new accounts join the steadily growing 3.2 billion active social media users worldwide. This gave them access to a bigger market with a catapulting chance of turning online actions into offline business. But was it so?

Emily's byre, the indian restaurant at rokeby manor, invergarry, scotland
Emily’s Byre, the Indian restaurant at Rokeby Manor, Invergarry, Scotland

On paper, says Gupta, “it does seem like a lucrative proposition—and to some extent, it does help by putting the brand out there when it is a target-driven engagement. Even then there looms the issue of engagement especially because of the rising number of fleeting social media users who could be your potential customers but are hard to impress. That’s when being conscientious about not just the platform used but also the content—be it original, in collaboration, or following a trend—becomes of paramount importance. And this is where agile, data-driven, focused marketing comes into play.”

For instance, he continues, “when it comes to India, Instagram and not Facebook has a better ROI for prime content and influencer collaboration, while in Scotland, the other platforms work when paired with offline cross-brand promotion. To give you an example, our signature brand Emily’s Byre is part of the JW Marriott’s guidebook of best places to eat for its guests, whereas in Scotland, it has an impactful digital footprint courtesy of guests’ reviews and feedback. Another space that works abroad is a well-laid out user-friendly website that gives enough information, not just about the brand but other dining aspects, which must be met with par excellence service and food quality. This layered approach has helped us attract travellers to make a detour to dine at one of our restaurants.”

Some of the delicious food at emily's byre
Some of the delicious food at Emily’s Byre

This careful selection and planning also extend to finding the target market and curating mood-boards in sync with their lifestyle and thought process. Adds Gupta, “So much of our online advertisement and data collection is directed towards the three markets of London, Glasgow, and Edinburgh. In India, however, that directed impact is brought through influencers who can bring in the desired result either by connecting it with a trend like the avocado toast, through crisp video reviews or just through sharing pictures with the right kind of hashtags. A big plus for Black Sheep Hotel here is our policy of using fresh ingredients and our philosophy of vocal for local when it comes to food.”

Says the VP, “The social game is often played on the psychological aspect of being social. As individuals, most of us are prone to share life with others, and food has the maximum visual connect and impact. This is the reason that social media works better for the food and hospitality industry. By choosing a message that matters to the target group and finding the right tool of impacting—be it influencers who embody it, social advertising or user-generated content—can boost engagement and brand awareness, inspiring offline conversations filled with positive sentiment.”

That, however, says Gupta, “is only a slice of the social media marketing pie. To ensure that social platforms bring in the results needs a few more components to be in place. The first is strategy. Social media often works as a double-edged sword that can drive you to create content purely based on the changing rules of engagement of the said platform or the traditional impressions of a certain trend. Both of which may or may not work for a certain brand. Hence, the need of a roadmap is important. The other aspect is the econometric modelling or pre/post-test/control methodologies to measure the true sales impact of influencer activities. Numbers of visible likes or shares are not indicative of whether the post has made the purposed dent in the direction needed, and hence parameters of evaluating each post, especially those that are boosted for search engine optimisation along with supporting hashtags, are needed to understand the kind of offline result that would work for the business, and justify the media spend.” 

Emily's, the restaurant at rokeby manor, mussoorie
Emily’s, the restaurant at Rokeby Manor, Mussoorie

These parameters are also helpful in creating filters to the information overdrive. In the case of Mars, says the seasoned hotelier, “while most of our posts concentrated on the food and the history of our hotels in Scotland, in India, especially Mussoorie that saw an overdrive of revenge travellers for which the town was shut down more than once, the stress was on the experience and leisure instead of the cooking and plating posts that were getting popular (and crowded) on various social media platforms. This mindful de-routing from the trend was a way to stand out for our market that was looking for experiences when travelling and dining out was restricted. The result was a slow but steady flow of guests to our properties.”

With close to 22% of business coming from social media and 40% engagement, there is no doubt that AI has transformed the way hospitality marketing, especially the business of food marketing, is conducted today. It has made marketing more intuitive, agile and has encouraged out-of-the-box creativity, but at the same time, it has shortened the response time that can be both beneficial and detrimental to a brand and could negate the spend on it. This is, says Gupta, “where a supporting team and community building and support becomes the crucial booster to help a brand navigate, considering the time between a negative review or presentation and its rectification has visibly reduced. Managed by a social expert, this AI and data-driven strategy works not only to put together a contingency plan to any initiative gone awry but also constantly redefines the way a brand is presented in the social framework.” Gupta, for whom the process of social media marketing has been a mixed bag of learning, reworking, and benefitting, believes that the digital space is a constantly evolving world with potential that needs careful harnessing, especially with the visual medium of food and hospitality where pitfalls like plagiarism are high and the need to stand out a never-ending challenge. In addition to that is the constantly evolving space that brings in new platforms at a breakneck speed. 

So how does one work the widening web of social media in the future? That concludes Gupta, “is a constant tug of war that most brands deal with. While visibility is the key to a brand’s existence today, how much or how little and which platform can make the difference, especially for an umbrella-like Mars with its bevy of different concepts, is of great importance. And this is where AI-driven data and an agile, integrated POA are needed. The idea isn’t just to get that click or feedback on a delicious-looking picture but a constant series of engagements through conversation.”

Madhulika dash
Known for her columns on food anthropology, Chefs’ Retreat and wellness-based experiential tables, Madhulika Dash has also been on the food panel of Masterchef India Season 4, a guest lecturer at IHM, and is currently part of the Odisha government’s culinary council.

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