Due to the impact of COVID-19, restaurants have had to pivot their strategies and implement new and creative ways to engage their audiences and adapt to new regulations.
Four restaurant marketing experts—Alan Magee, VP of Digital Marketing & Technology at Church’s Chicken; Mary Newell, Director of Digital & Brand Marketing at Texas Roadhouse; Jerry Shen, Director of Digital Marketing at Blaze Pizza; and Amir Zamanian, GM of Food, Beverage, and Restaurants at Attentive—joined Hathway’s CMO, Kevin Rice, in a discussion on how they’ve adapted their marketing strategies amid COVID-19, as well as their outlook on the future of the restaurant industry.
Adapting your overall marketing strategy
For many food brands and restaurants, the main goals of a marketing strategy are to increase in-store traffic and find more ways to drive revenue and brand loyalty. However, with mandatory “stay at home” lockdowns in place and social distancing guidelines to follow, these strategies need to be adapted to cater to the “new normal.”
“When COVID hit, our brand decided to take a ‘listen and learn approach,’” said Alan Magee, VP of Digital Marketing & Technology at Church’s Chicken. “Most of our messaging as a QSR was highlighting offers and deals to drive in-store traffic. We had to shift that message to be more about our accessibility: to-go options, delivery, drive-thru, and order ahead.”
When consumer behavior changes, a brand’s marketing strategies must also shift to meet the needs of those consumers. For example, if data suggests that delivery is more popular on Tuesdays and Fridays—or that there’s been a rise in family meal orders on Mondays—center your marketing messages around relevant offers that those customers can take advantage of on those specific days.
Investing in digital infrastructure
While changing the cadence or content of marketing messages is one way to adapt an overall marketing strategy, brands must also look into updating technical infrastructure and tools. “About 18 months ago, we knocked the house down and re-built a new integrated digital strategy,” Magee shared. “This investment set Church’s Chicken up for success because the digital transformation was already in motion.”
To Jerry Shen, Director of Digital Marketing at Blaze Pizza, it was important to show their audience that they are eager to listen to their needs, and quickly adapt to meet them. “As a company, we needed to be nimble, react quickly, flexibly, and show a willingness to try new things,” Shen said.
Kevin Rice, CMO at Hathway, agrees. “This crisis is an accelerator of digital innovation & investments,” said Rice. “Something that would take 3-5 years is now done in 3-5 months. Our clients have had to pivot quickly—they now realize how critical it is to have more of an investment in technology.”
Creating a best-in-class experience
Many restaurant businesses, like Texas Roadhouse, which were predominately dine-in establishments had to quickly shift their strategy to include to-go orders. “Before COVID-19, our business was about 8-10% to-go compared to dine-in. When COVID-19 first hit, our business shifted to 100% to-go, with sales increasing by about 575%,” said Mary Newell, Director of Digital & Brand Marketing at Texas Roadhouse. “This required major changes in operations, from the kitchen to how the front of the house functions. And for serving our guests, digital channels—like text messaging—were critical to being successful as we had to make these changes.”
When shifting strategies, it’s important for brands to research and implement new ways to continue to serve customers while still providing a best-in-class experience. Whether that means setting up the parking lot to be a new waiting area, partnering with local businesses to provide produce and ingredients needed to serve food to guests, or updating your websites and mobile experience to cater to phone orders and delivery options, there are many ways to retain and delight customers without sacrificing the quality of service. “We’ve learned how to be nimble and are more willing to try new things with messaging, like using more personality in our messages to guests,” Shen said.
Finding the silver lining
While this year has certainly posed many challenges, for both businesses and consumers, it’s important to acknowledge the many ways we’ll come out of this stronger than ever.
For many companies, this strength will be a result of shifting to a stronger digital strategy. “We’ve learned a lot—we know what the next 6 months of innovation look like,” Newell said. “We now have tools for customers and stores to adapt to this change. We’ve used text messaging to share our mobile-friendly menu and promotions, and local messaging has been a huge benefit.”
“SMS marketing has many benefits for consumer engagement in general, but when it comes to food and eating, there’s something uniquely perfect about the channel,” said Amir Zamanian, GM of Food, Beverage, and Restaurants at Attentive. “With more dining options than ever, reaching customers in the short window between being hungry and when they place an order is difficult. But with SMS, you get a read rate of less than 3 minutes. Take perfectly timed messages, include visual elements—like multimedia messages or video—and the reaction can literally be mouthwatering.”
Additionally, companies may see this strength through how they interact with their customers moving forward. “There’s a stronger relationship now between brands and customers,” Newell said. “They supported our business and we supported their needs. And now there’s a foundation built that we might not have had before. This will serve us—and more importantly, our guests—well in the long-term.”
As marketers, we must be ready to shift strategies as needed to meet the needs of our customers. Take the time to not only listen and learn in an effort to understand the motivation and priorities of customers, but also take inventory of the steps your company can take to continue to innovate and set yourself up for future success.
“What it means to have a best-in-class experience is a moving target,” Rice said. “Brands that invest, and continue to invest, will recognize that digital is not a project, it’s a product. Those are the ones that will remain the leader relative to the competition.”