Author Archives: Evelyn Starr

Will Zagat Fly or Fade?

Zagats Boston Guide Brand in Adolescence At Risk of Not MaturingBefore I started writing monthly newsletters four years ago, I wrote restaurant reviews.  Just one or two a year for Zagat’s Boston Restaurant Guide.  One contributed review was enough to score me a free copy of the next guide release and seemed well worth the effort.

When Zagat first launched its guide in the early 1980s it was unique. It provided succinct reviews and ratings from patrons instead of critics.  This was revolutionary in the 1980s.

Like many new products, the Zagat guide emerged from the recognition of an unmet market need. 

In 1979 Tim and Nina Zagat were out to dinner in New York City with friends when one of their friends complained about a restaurant review in a major newspaper.  Tim and Nina suggested that they survey their friends for insights on restaurants, and interviewed 200 of them.  The result was a single legal-sized page of restaurant ratings and recommendations that they distributed to their friends and colleagues.

Not long after they began publishing their one-pager they received a call from a friend who worked at Citibank.  The one-pager had landed on his desk with a note at the top that read “To all the officers of the bank.”  There were 3000 officers at the bank.

That’s when the Zagats decided to commercialize the guide. Publishers resisted their advances in 1982 because they thought the pocket-sized guide – designed to be mobile – would get lost on bookstore shelves.  They also resisted the idea that anyone wanted reviews from ordinary people.

The Zagats ended up self-publishing what became referred to as the “Burgundy Bible” among New York restaurant goers.  Once the guide took off in New York City in 1985, they expanded to other cities, and began reviewing hotels, specialty retailers and other services as well.

In sourcing reviews from ordinary people, the Zagats were pioneers of user-generated content.  They had the market to themselves for the latter half of the 1980s and most of the 1990s.

Then came the internet.

The couple embraced the internet, collecting survey results online and licensing their content to early web services Prodigy and CompuServe.  In 1999 they launched a full-featured website, and two years later they began charging users to access reviews and ratings.

The decision to charge users for content was defensive – free online content might cannibalize book sales.  But the paywall Zagat erected hurt them in two major ways.

First, Google was ascending as a search engine of choice and penalized content behind paywalls in its listings.  So Zagat was not showing up high on search results.  Second, the void at the top of the search results created an environment where free review content like Yelp, TripAdvisor, and Chowhound could flourish.

And this is when Zagat hit its brand adolescence.

I think the Zagats sensed this.  Their son Ted, who assumed the company presidency in 1999, left in 2007.  In 2008, with $40 million in revenue ($30 million from its paper guides), the couple tried and failed to sell the company.  This left them with a much more competitive environment and antsy investors.

Ultimately Google bought Zagat in 2011 for $151 million (after a failed $500 million bid for Yelp in 2009).  Marissa Mayer, then Vice President of Local, Maps and Location Services at Google, planned to make Zagat the centerpiece of Google’s local search.

Within a year, however, Google saw major management changes and Marissa Mayer left to head Yahoo.  Zagat lost their internal brand champion.  In 2013 Zagat removed the paywall from its website and its mobile apps, but by then it had been overtaken by Yelp in traffic and in technical prowess.

Where is Zagat now?  Still in brand adolescence and languishing.

Tim and Nina Zagat are still at the helm, at ages 75 and 73 respectively.

Zagat is down to publishing only one hard copy guide – New York City.  The rest of the content, for 35 U.S. market areas and 10 international cities, is accessible for free via their website and their poorly-rated mobile apps.

In my view, the Zagat brand is fading.

To regain their brand footing, they need to do what any adolescent needs to do:  focus.  Like the high school athlete who stops playing a sport in every season and focuses on the one where she performs best, Zagat needs to assess its brand strengths and put some muscle behind them.

Specifically, Zagat should:

  • Recast itself as a high-end restaurant and service guide. The restaurants that gain the highest ratings are the special occasion venues.  The markets the company lists include areas where older and wealthier consumers are, such as Cape Cod and Westchester/Hudson Valley.
  • Focus on the brand’s differentiating elements:

    • Curated reviews – You get the full story in a quick sentence or two.
    • Unique rating scale – Zagat’s scale is more sensitive than the usual 5 stars and is still widely respected in major U.S. cities.
    • Community –Zagat’s user base still enjoys contributing and trusts the reviews. Nurturing this community will strengthen it and help it grow among the target audience.
  • Return to publishing paper guides in more cities, even if in limited quantities. The guides do two major things for the brand:  garner publicity and update the reviews.  As composites, Zagat’s reviews are undated.  It’s hard to know how old they are, and therefore how reliable.  Releasing a new version would instill confidence in the reviews and gain major press coverage.
  • Determine a successor and push Google for resources.

Without some quick intervention, the Zagat brand will stagnate and may not survive its adolescence.

My New York area readers, you can still contribute a review and get a free copy of the guide.

As for me, I’ll stick to writing newsletters.

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Cheap Skate Marketing

Evelyn's black boot collection for brand storytellingI love autumn in New England, so I’m a happy camper up here right now.  And yes, autumn presages a long winter, but I have found ways to enjoy that too.

One of the benefits of New England’s long winters is that you can wear boots six months of the year.  I’ve gained an affinity for black boots and wear them almost every day once the cold sets in.

In a decidedly un-Imelda Marcos-move though, I’ve not amassed a huge collection.

Instead I have a few favorite pairs that I keep in good order with a yearly visit or two to my buddy Oleg, the cobbler in Natick Center. read more

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5 Mistakes That Hold Brands Back

Graph showing a plateau over time, no brand growth

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Has your brand hit a plateau?  Or is it growing erratically?  Does fostering growth seem harder than it should be?

Here are 5 common mistakes that could be holding your brand back.

  1. No clear brand definition.

Can you explain your brand clearly and concisely to a prospect?  If you struggle with its description, chances are you haven’t taken the time to define your brand. read more

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We Laughed, We Cried, It Was Better Than Cats

L'Oreal ad with Cybil Shepard Because I'm worth itOne endearing quality about my sister when we were growing up was that she sometimes cried at TV commercials.  There was one in particular where a large litter of puppies greeted children at their grandmother’s house that got her to well up.  I was not surprised when, as an adult, she got a dog.

I teared up at commercials too when I was a child, and felt funny about it until I noticed her doing it.

I still shed tears at TV ads once in a while.  And not just when they are maddeningly bad advertising. read more

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Whole Foods Frays Organically

Whole Foods Responsibly Grown LogoHave you ever wished for a personal chef?

Well for two months I had one.

In autumn 1999, after years of working as a chef on yachts, in restaurants and on catering gigs, my sister-in-law Rachael decided to transition to a new career:  web master.  Her transition involved relocating to the Boston area and earning Microsoft certifications.

Rachael moved to her parents’ house in Needham while she studied for her certifications and waited for her new Watertown condo to be ready.  Her parents decided to move to Cape Cod two months before her move-in date though.  So my husband Dan and I invited her to live with us. read more

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Car Talk

Silver Honda Pilot

Photo credit: Fiona Traub

I grew up in a family that bought large used cars.  My dad was good at finding sturdy, reliable cars that owners no longer wanted once they had logged 40,000 miles.  He bought the ones that a local mechanic blessed and could fix for a couple hundred dollars.  Then we drove them another 80,000 – 120,000 miles.

So it may not come as a surprise to you that I am driving a 2006 Honda Pilot with 113,000 miles right now. read more

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Don’t You Forget About Your Brand

Ally Sheedy's character in The Breakfast Club, before and after her makeover.

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This past March marked the 30th anniversary of the movie The Breakfast Club

For those of you who might not know it, the movie portrays the gathering of five stereotypical high schoolers (a brain, an athlete, a basket case, a princess and a criminal) for a day-long detention on a Saturday.  Over the course of the day, social barriers recede.  The teenagers share insights that both explain their stereotypes and undermine them at the same time.

The movie struck a chord with adolescents everywhere when it was released, and continues to engage succeeding generations.  My husband and I watched it with our teenagers a couple of years ago. read more

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Life is Good Goes for Grand

Original Jake drawing from Life is Good,  brand in adolescence

Original Jake Drawing
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While many families chose warm weather destinations for the February school vacation, my son AJ and I took a road trip to Vermont and upstate New York.  No, we are not skiers.

Why would we choose a subzero-temperature week to travel to these northern locales?

To look at colleges.

AJ is a junior in high school.  Though he will not be applying to colleges until next fall, we are visiting now so that he will know where he wants to apply then. read more

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15 Tips for Using LinkedIn Updates to Grow Your Network

LinkedIn Rolodex

Image credit: Social Media Quickstarter, now known as

Do you remember the card game Concentration?  Or maybe you called it Memory or Pairs?

To start, all the cards were face down in rows.  You chose two cards to turn over.  If you made a match, finding two aces for example, you kept those cards and could turn over two more.  If you did not make a match, your turn ended and the next person tried.

The person with the most matches won.

Early on the game was a real memory tester, because you had to remember the cards that you saw based on a single short exposure. read more

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What a Croc

Crocs in all rainbow colors

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I was a persistent child.  How persistent?  Let’s just say that several times during my childhood my father wished, “May you have a child just like you.”

Well, I did.  Two of them.

On a Monday in early January 2004 my daughter Fiona came home from preschool and demanded to know when we were going to Disney World.  Several of her friends had gone during the December break, so when were we going?  My husband Dan and I just smiled and said we did not know.

She inquired again on Tuesday.  On Thursday.  On Saturday.  On Sunday.  Our 5-year-old son AJ began asking as well. read more

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