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Digital Marketing for the New Quick Serve Restaurant Landscape

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How mobile technologies and changing customer behaviors may affect QSR marketing

By Alex May: Associate Director of Strategy, Travel, Hospitality, & Food Services

The world is currently in a strange limbo. It’s like we’re all in a deli line where we’ve picked a number, but somehow the next one called is even further away from the one in our hand. While a full-scale vaccination effort is underway, tempting consumers and quick serve restaurant owners alike with fantasies of a return to normalcy, COVID-19 variants have caused case numbers to rise, reminding us all that we are still in the middle of life-changing events.

But QSRs cannot plan for the future–and finally stop thinking about the pandemic 24/7–without first understanding how the past year may have permanently altered the relationship between fast-casual restaurants and their customers. Not all those changes are negative, especially as customers rely on new technology to get the food they want, fast. In order to prosper in the waning days of COVID-19 and beyond, QSR brands are turning to new marketing technology solutions to personalize the customer experience and create a positive brand impression at every touch point. 

The New Mobile QSR Experience

While QSRs, like all restaurants, suffered in 2020, the agile nature of fast food and fast casual dining establishments, and their adaptability in the face of market changes, allowed many brands to stem the tide of market forces. Many even prospered, with consumers flocking to off-premise dining options when at-home cooking grew tiresome. 

QSR brands were also experimenting with mobile applications before the pandemic struck, and the early adoption paid off. The number of diners that placed an order at a QSR restaurant via mobile tripled from 2015-2018. Because consumers were searching for safe ways to order takeout food last year, the pandemic accelerated that adoption rate exponentially – the average U.S. household spent $4,520 on digital food orders last year since shutdowns began. Even with the end of the pandemic in sight, QSR brands are investing in mobile apps, online ordering, and adjacent technologies that will foster a warm and inviting customer experience on the mobile channel. 

The Brick and Mortar Locations of the Future

After indoor dining ground to a halt last year, many QSR brands started envisioning smaller, tech-based brick and mortar locations that were agile and ready to serve customers that valued efficiency and off-premise dining. Now Taco Bell has opened their first digital-only Cantina in Times Square while the fast-food brand incorporates predictive technology at other locations to alert kitchen staff when a customer arrives. Burger King and McDonalds have increased the number of drive through lanes at many of their stores and both organizations are experimenting with new, customer-centric technologies. 

Digital sales will make up an estimated 54% of overall QSR sales by 2025. Brands are now searching for the right ordering platform, mobile app provider, and martech stack to optimize the online experience, personalize the customer journey, and prepare for a tech-heavy future. Technology will allow QSR brands to experiment with more agile brick-and-mortar strategies, which will in turn help reduce the bottomline. But as consumers adapt quickly to mobile and online ordering, brands will need to rethink their marketing and customer journey tactics to engage customers that expect a personalized, efficient experience.

A Focus on Loyalty

Last year, QSR brands experienced major disruptions when consumers started traveling less and working from home more. And while travel will once again pick up, the lunch rush may not look the same post-pandemic. Major companies around the world now see the value in a remote workforce, meaning more people will skip dine-out lunch options in favor of home cooking. QSRs will need to re-focus their efforts on new dining incentives such as loyalty programs in order to evolve with the times – and people want loyalty programs. More than 33% of consumers said loyalty and reward programs would boost their spend.

Many of the top fast food brands have rolled out loyalty programs that allow customers to earn points through their mobile app. This allows QSR brands to gather more information on their customers and quickly scale a more personalized ordering experience, creating loyal customers that want to keep earning rewards in hopes of free meals and other perks. 

QSR brands are relying heavily on mobile and email personalization to build valuable loyalty programs. One Movable Ink client recently rolled out a new quarterly loyalty email that incorporated a survey which updated automatically. The email also offered the option for customers to share their rewards on social media, allowing them to brag about free meals and incentives. Every aspect of the email was unique to the individual recipient and the survey allowed the brand to gauge customer interests and plan their next campaign. 

The pandemic upended customer expectations over the past year and a half, and accelerated digital adoption trends that were taking place even before restaurants shuttered their indoor dining options. People won’t be traveling as much, eating indoors as often, or ordering at the counter when they don’t have to. QSR brands that adapt to the changing landscape quickly, remain agile, and rethink how to market to consumers will be set up for a successful post-pandemic boom in customer spending.

For more information on how marketing teams of any size can create meaningful 1:1 experiences, download Movable Ink’s eBook Best-in-Class Personalization Across Email and Mobile.

Alex May joins us from the client-side, spending the past eight years in various marketing roles focused on digital communications, CRM, and personalization. Most recently, at Neiman Marcus, he focused on test-and-learn programs to scale personalized, omnichannel customer experiences. He also led the strategy, implementation, and ongoing execution of Neiman’s personal shopper matching program. Alex began his career working in the QSR space for brands including Pizza Hut and Dave & Buster’s. He is well-versed in the challenges of marketing and loyalty in the QSR landscape and applies those learnings to develop innovative personalization strategies for our Travel, Hospitality, and Food Services clients.

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