Normal Won’t be on the Menu: Communications to Drive Restaurant Sales in 2021

As we head into the next wave of COVID-19, it is clear that little is likely to be regular or routine for restaurants for a long while. Even with the recent promising announcements of two highly effective vaccines, and the possibility that 2021 may bring us to the other side of the COVID-19 crisis, restaurant chains will continue to face extreme volatility and significant headwinds. Their resilience and resolve will continue to be tested. How, and what, industry brands communicate will without doubt influence how customers spend their dollars.

Restaurant chains will have to be creative, nimble and authentically empathetic. Consumers will expect brands to develop content that addresses their needs and the issues they are facing in everyday life versus straight marketing of services or products. Both customers and crew will want to feel protected and secure. Large, multi-unit and multi-state chains will be expected to demonstrate how they are leveraging resources to be a force for good, as we’ve seen already from Chipotle, Domino’s, our client Dunkin’, and many others, while also delivering increased traffic and growth.

As we look at 2021, competition will be fierce as restaurant brands look to fuel recovery, drive customer counts, and increase profit. An increasing number of promotions, programs and pitches will require a higher degree of creativity and innovation to stand apart and rise above the noise.

Now more than ever, a strong communications playbook will allow restaurant brands to engage stakeholders smartly and sensitively while determining the right steps to meet the needs of employees, customers and communities.

So what should restaurants consider as they develop a plan that continues to navigate the current challenges, while pivoting to the substantial opportunities that may exist? Answers to these questions are rooted in the lessons learned from 2020. Here are four recommendations that can play an important role in building a successful restaurant communications plan.

Show Care and Commitment in an Authentic Way

In the wake of both the pandemic and social issues that have transformed our culture and conversation, empathy and understanding absolutely must continue to be a driver of communications strategy and tactics. The spirit of treating each other with consideration, pulling together, giving back, stepping up and pitching in to make a difference will not and should not recede; rather, it can be a key definer of successful brands moving forward.

Consumers want brands to make workers the top priority. Great customer service starts with great employees. These are the people who serve as the face of your brand on a daily basis. Employees have worked tirelessly while adapting to uncertain and unfamiliar conditions. What programs will you create to recognize their efforts and encourage their continued loyalty? Are you prepared to maintain an appropriately high level of engagement and transparency to keep them connected and informed while addressing concerns as they arise? As workers pause to re-evaluate personal priorities, in what new ways will you make work-life balance a company priority?

Certainly in the short term, safety will remain the number one concern of both employees and customers. How are you utilizing communications channels to reassure that you are providing them with a safe and healthy environment?

Finally, corporate social responsibility and ESG will continue to take more of the spotlight. Communications plans must incorporate programs to address stewardship for people and the planet. This includes environmental initiatives, such as Panera Bread’s recent initiative to be first national restaurant company to label climate-friendly meals, as well as internal and external diversity, inclusion, and equity policies and initiatives and ensuring transparency in all the brand does. More than ever, restaurants will be judged on how authentically committed they are to making a difference, and how much and how well they lead with their values and purpose. For a much more detailed look at the accelerating importance of ESG, please see this post from RF|Binder’s CEO, Amy Binder.

Create Memorable Moments That Matter

Despite social distancing, quarantine and work-from-home, the confines of COVID-19 fueled innovation, with everything from TikToks, sidewalks, music and more, creating more moments of fun or escape. Customers will see 2021 as a fresh start to engage with bold, out-of-the-box campaigns. Compelling communications can drive impactful headlines, fan engagement, and brand love, which will ultimately lead to more customers through your doors.

The brands that stay committed to providing innovative, original solutions will be the ones that stand apart during the next phase of the pandemic. In fact, that commitment will be crucial for brands to differentiate themselves in a battle for customer mindshare and spend.

For example, in the wake of the turbulent summer our client, Baskin-Robbins, turned to actor and author Taye Diggs to spark positivity by creating an original children’s e-book about giving and receiving kindness and celebrating our differences. And, as many pumped the brakes on plans for a summer getaway and dreamed about getting away, Dunkin’ gave Americans a chance for a travel re-do and a moment of refresh, offering fans a chance to win a week with the “Dunkin’ Refreshers RV.”

As it has always been in marketing and communications, creativity for creativity’s sake rarely achieves consequential results. Imagination and ingenuity must ladder up to insight into your stakeholders’ needs and the overall consumer landscape. Consider the following questions—a partial checklist of conditions for applying creative ideas within a plan:

  • Does this make sense for our brand to implement? Does it align with our overall mission?
  • Are we effectively solving an existing or likely consumer need?
  • How are we giving back or bringing tangible value?
  • Can we implement quickly enough to ensure relevance?
  • Are we aligned with consumers’ current concerns, challenges and conversations, or do we risk appearing tone-deaf and insensitive?

Lead Through Conversation

Given the intensity and dynamics of current conversations, brand leaders will be a key source of information and insight. Media has leaned on leaders of chain restaurants like never before to give a general feeling of where things stand with the U.S. consumer. If you are concerned about over-communicating, don’t be.  Thought-leading restaurant brands are leveraging media opportunities to provide a perspective that resonates with employees, customers, media, and investors.

Have your leaders been able to step in front of the cameras or step up on social media to be the voice of the brand? Media training and message review are essential to ensure that the company’s actions and intentions are presented to the public consistently, clearly, and calmly no matter how stressful, shifting, or sudden the situation.

Serving as a spokesperson successfully in these times is about the “when” as well as the “what.” Organizations must have a structure in place for communicating as often as stakeholders need to keep them informed and connected. They must also be ready to react immediately when reporters call or social communities raise questions or concerns.

Numerous technologies are available in helping to tackle this task, identifying and analyzing key conversations and trends, or alerting to urgent news updates. Do not limit monitoring to conversations on your own social channels or you can miss the bigger picture in your programming.

Make Crisis Preparation a Priority

Crisis preparedness was always an area where investment was necessary, even as one hoped it wouldn’t be put to use. Now there really is no choice. The specter of COVID-19 and the headwinds it brings will endure, and remain a constant threat to disrupt daily work and life. Will your brand be prepared?

In hindsight, was your crisis planning as effective as it could have been? Now is the time to assess the following questions:

  • Did your current crisis planning team bring the right mix of skills, experience and expertise?
  • Did key messages resonate with stakeholders effectually?
  • Were you able to navigate the crisis effectively through paid opportunities, owned channels and earned media successfully?
  • Were any important segments of your audiences neglected?
  • Were you able to move nimbly and assertively to capitalize on every chance to inform, engage and build trust with your most important audiences?

Ongoing planning will be absolutely critical. Company leaders must come together to anticipate and address new threats or scenarios, both realistic and remote, stemming from changing circumstances, customer concerns, competitor experiences and more. And because crisis communications is like any other skill, the amount of practice and preparation is in direct proportion to how fast and effectively you can act when the need arises. The team must understand their specific individual roles and responsibilities, and be ready to implement the right steps quickly.

For the restaurant industry, so profoundly affected by the seismic shifts of 2020, the coming months will bring more changes, new perspectives, critical challenges and key opportunities. In today’s world, developing the right communication strategy is more important than ever. Putting the right strategies on the menu will support business results and position your brand for winning in 2021 and beyond.