Faced with the stark reality of closed dining areas, people working from home, and home-cooked meals, COVID-19 will force a radical rethinking of quickserve restaurant (QSR) marketing.
It’s no longer about smackdowns over who has the best coffee, the world-class burger or the most delicious fried chicken sandwich. Defined marketing messaging must shift to encouraging already loyal customers to come out for contactless access to food, drive-through speediness or free delivery charges.
Moving beyond one-upmanship competitive marketing for consumer traffic, QSR brands have to figure out creative ways to up the frequency that consumers will choose them. In a recent survey of nearly 700 consumers by my firm, 88% of respondents said they want deals, discounts and freebies during this time.
With stay-at-home quarantines and new work-from-home protocols, QSR restaurants have to scramble to drum up consumer traffic. They can no longer rely on the morning commute when customers stop to pick up a quick breakfast and coffee; no one is zipping out of the office for a quick lunch; and there are no minivans full of youth soccer players who need dinner on the go.
Overall, you have people who fear leaving their homes and won’t be quick to flock to crowded indoor dining spaces where they dine without masks on.
Let’s break down the survey stats:
- 88% of consumers are cooking more meals at home since stay-at-home orders went into effect in March.
- 54% claimed dinner was the meal most frequently fulfilled by QSR, followed by lunch at 25%.
- 40% said their top motivator for going to QSR is for quick and convenient service, followed by the desire for variation between home-cooked meals (28%), and then cost and value (24%).
Best marketing practices for QSR during and post-pandemic
In the current pandemic world for QSRs, foot traffic “show-up” business is being plunged into a digital catch-up. Also, mobile advance ordering will become normative, as well as alerting local customers to restaurant openings and any deals.
Let’s look at how QSR businesses can pivot their marketing strategies.
Take it local: A large number of QSR locations are franchised, meaning the owner is operating similar to a small business. It’s easy for consumers to believe these fast-food restaurants are fully protected by a corporation. Local franchise owners can appeal to the local consumer by putting a personal face behind a big name QSR brand. Without the interstate traffic of travelers, QSR dining is more reliant than ever on local customers and according to MarketingProfs, consumers are willing to drive less than nine minutes for a fast-food meal.
Geotargeting: Non-franchised QSR destinations can take advantage of the “think local” approach, as well. Sending a targeted message to a specific radius of consumers versus country-wide for a national brand, will generate more store traffic as opposed to simply brand awareness.
Deal or no deal: The coupon, the freebie, the buy one/get one. Consumers have long gravitated toward incentives to choose a brand and restaurants are no exception. This is even more key to success during a time where, according to the survey, nearly 86% believe the country is headed into a recession.
Focus on dinner: As noted in the stats, diners are turning to QSR for dinner more than any other meal. It is now a strategic, thought-out decision to leave the house for food – even pick-up – versus before COVID-19 when an impulse fast-food meal was more prevalent.
Data on repeat diners: If a consumer has downloaded the app, joined a loyalty program or checked-in to your QSR, they expect to hear from you and would welcome perks and incentives to return.
Apps become a necessity: Convenience rules and it’s becoming more and more expected to be able to order from quick-service establishments via an app. Offering this option not only makes ordering and pick-up even easier but is a visible platform for consumers to personalize their orders, check past orders and track rewards status.
A community player: Brands across the country have been donating to food pantries, providing meals to health care and essential workers, and acting as a true member of their communities. This philanthropic measure not only benefits the community, but the brand identity, too.
Paid digital marketing: Further promoting organic efforts via targeted Google Ads or individual social platforms is a relatively low-cost way to get a local QSR location in front of more consumers that otherwise may never think to go.
Timeout from fighting: Let’s call it halftime for the great fast-food social media wars. While the King showing up in Wendy’s parking lot is comical, and the heated viral taste-test between Popeyes and Chick-fil-A is captivating, consumers have indicated they aren’t looking to brands for the comedic relief during the COVID-19 crisis.
User-generated Content: During the infamous release of Popeyes' new chicken sandwich in 2019, the restaurant brand reportedly generated nearly $23 million in earned media in under two weeks. None of the top-performing content came from an in-house Popeyes platform. Outsider, authentic content can propel a brand in ways traditional advertising never could.
Drive-throughs Dominate: QSR brands with drive-thrus are well-positioned to continue business during the COVID-19 disruption. According to The New York Times, the drive-thru already accounted for around 70% of revenue at a large number of establishments prior to the pandemic. Franchise owners can capitalize on this infrastructure in their marketing strategies, offering a sense of normalcy to consumers.
Welcome to ____, how can I get your order started today?
It’s clear that QSRs need to pivot their marketing plans to appeal to the everyday diner during the pandemic. There are more competitors than ever offering takeout options, more services providing delivery and a genuine fear of contact by both workers and consumers.
Additionally, many of these QSR individual franchises are up against restrictions on creating their own social media marketing and platforms, as corporate strives for a uniform approach. Decisions, such as using influencer marketing to create the voice a franchise can’t present from its own handle, lends to a powerful modern marketing tool today.
By taking a strategic approach in using authentic voices, geo-targeted measures and empathy toward the customer base, QSR brands will remain a signature part of American culture long after the pandemic subsides.
Stacy DeBroff is a Social and digital media strategist, best-selling author, attorney, and founder and CEO of Influence Central, which delivers cutting-edge social media and digital campaigns focused on influencer marketing.