Pandemic Exhaustion and Recovery Overload are Hitting The Foodservice Industry

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Pandemic exhaustion and recovery overload are forcing restaurant leaders back into the same bad marketing habits that exacerbated industry vulnerability to socio-economic disruption in the first place. But, there is a better way.

Pandemic exhaustion is different from physical exhaustion. Pandemic exhaustion is an amplifier — it adds fear, helplessness, despair, guilt, anger and depression to your physical and mental state and becomes almost completely overwhelming. This likely sums up, at some point or another during the pandemic, your state of mind.

Still, recovery has now raised a much different and more-nuanced problem for you. There’s simply too much information to absorb and way too much for you to do.

Solutions, insights and ideas are everywhere, reminding you of the success everyone else is having and hundreds of ways to duplicate and emulate inside of your own recovery. 

Does any of this sound familiar?

  • Big chains and QSRs taking a post-COVID victory lap, touting double-digit same-store-sales increases;
  • “Digital everything” — payroll, POS, inventory management, online ordering, loyalty, SEO/SEM, CRM. Do it all or be left behind;
  • Health-and-safety policy and operational minutiae consuming EVERY. SINGLE. TRANSACTION;
  • Ghost kitchens and virtual concepts — this is on trend and the marketplace isn’t going back;
  • Customers want sustainability, locally sourced foods and NO food waste. So, change your packaging, suppliers and business model…oh, and keep prices low;
  • Third-party delivery is killing us. “I just read about a new delivery model! Low fees to the restaurant, low delivery fees and is going to steal share from the big players!”;
  • Menu and model re-design rumour mill. “Did you hear competitor X is adding drive thrus? They’re pushing into breakfast and building in an artisan deli, custom meal kits and grab-and-go charcuterie?”

This is recovery overload. It is FOMO run amok and it’s overwhelming. Options everywhere, experts in your ear with the latest technology and innovations to save your business. With everything you’ve already been through, this has become almost impossible to navigate.

So, exhausted and weighed down by the sheer responsibility of survival and now the burden of recovery, marketing becomes an afterthought. You go with what you’ve always known. Lean on great products, LTOs, pricing and value strategies and whatever exists in your DNA that has allowed you to survive. 

Stop. You’re OVERwhelmed. 
But the worst decision you can make now is to become a brand that is UNDERwhelming.  An underwhelming brand follows leaders in the category instead of becoming a leader. An underwhelming brand believes that customers care about them when there is nothing to care about. An underwhelming brand becomes so focused on the operational systems supporting serving customers they forget to actually engage customers. 

Here’s a simple approach that counters the bad habits that have plagued the industry for years. Let’s re-set your marketing priorities around recovery and lay the foundation for some quick wins and long-term customer engagement and business-building routines.

First, start by thinking of your customers not as targets, but as always in some state of interaction and engagement with your brand. So, a new customer, who you might normally target through advertising and discounts to gain trial is actually a low interaction, low engagement, low-advocacy customer who requires more than just an incentive for purchase. They need justification for choosing you, remembering you and choosing you again.

Second, since you’ve changed your mindset about your customers, you’re ready to build your marketing strategy around increasing levels of engagement and advocacy in your customer base. In other words, stop aligning goals with nebulous sales outcomes and focus on tactics and metrics that cultivate and indicate increasing levels of loyalty and engagement:

  • Relevance = growing top-of-mind/tip-of-tongue awareness
  • Affinity = inspiring hyper-loyalty
  • Intent = increasing likelihood to purchase again
  • Conversion = ensuring convenience and ease of experience through purchase

Third, the marketing plan. This is not an “in-and-out” plan that utilizes monthly budgets, promotions and ad buys. This is a 360-degree, always-on plan that drives upward advocacy in your customer base, focusing on creating and cultivating customers that are more engaged, more likely to buy and more likely to share their experiences with their peers.

So, what does this look like?
New customers become repeat customers

  • Creative and communication focus: newness, distinctiveness, authenticity, differentiation, functionality
  • Execution focus: branded content, partnerships, SEO/customer reviews, communities, PR

Lapsed customers become loyal customers

  • Creative and communication focus: passion, emotion, motivation, belonging, exceeding expectations
  • Execution focus: loyalty introduction and incentives, SEO/ customer reviews, sampling/giveaways, value- add, surprise and delight

Loyal customers become hyper-loyal customers

  • Creative and communication focus: loyal, emotional, personal, authentic, judging
  • Execution focus: personalization, surprise and delight

Hyper-loyal customers become advocates

  • Creative and communication focus: loyal, emotional, personal, authentic, judging
  • Execution focus: personalization, surprise and delight, rewards, insider “VIP” status and recognition

So now that your foundational marketing strategy becomes perpetual upward motion towards higher and higher levels of advocacy, should you ignore less “valuable” niches or reject awareness and promotional marketing completely? 

Absolutely not. 
But keep in mind that the industry’s pre-occupation with targeting low-value customers and relying heavily on ineffective marketing has created a generation of customers who are underwhelmed by most undifferentiated restaurant brands.

After 25 years in the industry, no one has proven that higher ad spend and promo/discount frequency does anything to create customer loyalty or long-term business success. But targeted media and unique high-value promos can play a role in amplifying foundational efforts to drive relevance, affinity, intent and conversion.

Just keep these three points in mind:

  1. Ensure you’re staying on message, close to your brand promise and the core functionality of the customer problem you are solving.
  2. Conversion or call to action (CTA) is also essential. It makes no sense to create a direct and intentional customer engagement without providing the customer the opportunity to carry on the story.
  3. If you are targeting product trial then don’t waste time on regular, routine watered down discounts and price-based value. Shock people, cut through the clutter and make news with irregular, unexpected and impossible to ignore value.

Pandemic exhaustion and recovery overload are already claiming victims in the restaurant industry as we continue to watch pedestrian and underwhelming traditional marketing sink so many brands into obscurity. Remember, great marketing can’t wait. There is a proven correlation between hyper-loyal customer advocates, unforgettable brands and long-term business success but this doesn’t happen by standing still.

Written by Brandon Poole
Brandon Poole  is managing director and Restaurant/Foodservice lead with Cult Collective Toronto. He can be reached at brandon@cultideas.com

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