Is your brand really doing digital?

It’s 2017. Every business has elements driven or improved by digital tools. The chasm between the haves and have nots is widening. On one side, the progressive brands embrace technology to improve and future-proof their business. On the other: brands that are slower to adopt technology, often playing catch-up.

Every restaurant brand has a digital program. Every brand has an email list. Every brand is on Facebook. These are certainly foundational elements of digital marketing. But they’re now table stakes. Guests are exposed to so many messages that they are blind to them. They choose not to see them. The question is, are you really doing digital if you’re just doing the above? Slower moving brands have good reason to hold off. But innovative brands are testing and deploying new technologies and leveraging the tech the guests already use.

The most successful innovation starts from the goal of the guest, not the brand.

Prudence and caution are wise before making major investments in tech, such as a new POS or CRM system. Too much caution might leave brands stranded as those that take risks with digital innovation are rewarded. More frequently, consumers are expecting innovation as part of their core experience. Look at loyalty programs. Consumers expect a loyalty program to exist as an app. A stamp or punch card is viewed as outmoded. That view reflects on your brand.

First impressions matter

The loyalty program might not apply to casual or new guests. You still have other ways to win them up front. For QSR and Fast Casuals, digital displays or menus are powerful for communication. And what about the ordering process itself? Panera Bread credits self-service kiosks for a rise in traffic and profitability. Instead of loss of customers from reduced interaction, they’ve seen the opposite. Plus, the digital stations allowed Panera to move staff from registers to food preparation. McDonald’s is rolling out a similar system that will allow self-service ordering and table delivery.

Similar table side digital systems have popped up across casual dining concepts to varying effect. Brands like Chili’s and Red Robin have had kiosks for years. Guests can order beverages, pay their bill or play games. What we give up in interaction, we make up for in convenience. In these environments, they’re not replacements for hospitality, but complements. And they are already being improved upon. Look beyond your category for inspiration. Top brands are innovating cleverly, to provide value to their customers. Home Improvement brand Lowe’s is using a location based digital system that allows them to customize overwhelming shopping categories based on customer direction. How could a similar system aid guests at the table? These two touchpoints are just the beginning. They start from a place of the brand, and not necessarily the guest. The most successful innovation often does the opposite.

Don’t build it from scratch

Some brands are overwhelmed by the idea of creating technology from the ground up. There are so many amazing tools that have already been built. Look at all the software consumers use for location services. We all have our phones at the ready. We want relevant information. Right time and place. Digital enables that. According to a DMNews study, 78% are willing to allow use of their purchase information to provide a more personalized experience. When mobile phones were new, location based communication was definitely considered creepy. But our acceptance has grown quickly as consumers have discovered the benefits. Brands have many opportunities to capitalize and build relationships.

Everyone with a smartphone uses mapping software. Services like Waze, or ad platforms like Sito allow for messages to be incorporated into map or location-based content. These networks will then identify when a consumer who saw the message traveled to your location.

Google just rebooted its Popular Times feature from search and maps to include real-time traffic information. Dining brands can use this system to drive traffic during soft times, or divert people during a rush. Google has already done the work. People are already using the system. Now your team can simply to connect it.

A restaurant concept does not have to do everything to be relevant. There are dozens of news tools and platforms every month, so keeping up and identifying the appropriate tools is not possible. But staying on the sidelines while technology moves forward is not wise. Small tests and programs will help find the best tools and move your business forward. Gathering data from your customers to better serve and communicate simply can’t wait.

Waning brand loyalty means the experience curve matters

Dozens of new restaurant chains launched this year, each changing the expectation of consumers just a bit more. With more competition, it should come as no surprise that loyalty is down, or at least that brand loyalty does not mean what it once did. People take advantage of choice and offers as their budgets continue to be tight. Understanding the experience curve can help brands stem the waning tide of brand loyalty.

Is brand loyalty down? In some categories worse than others. Facebook shared a study they conducted to identify the differences between “Brand Loyalists” and “Repeat Purchasers.” Interestingly, they were able to divide up the two groups by the descriptive words they used about their favorite brands. Loyalists, it seems, use experiential words. Words like fun, friendly, clean, innovative.

New is better than known.

What is causing the change in loyalty? In a recent article in Forbes, the author ties it back to macro shifts in culture itself. Loyalty has dissolved across many parts of life, and now brands suffer as a result. An interesting read for sure. The most relevant driver listed there is “‘New’ is better than ‘Known’.” It isn’t backed by any statistics, but is inherently understandable.

For each new restaurant concept, there is a trial. People want an experience they recognize or can quickly grasp, but they do not want the same old experience. This is a shift in the experience paradigm. Quick service operations came to dominance in the 70’s and especially the 80’s by standardizing everything about their experience. Fast casuals have exploited some of those standards for better or worse. Guests are familiar with waiting in line for a hamburger at Five Guys from QSR experiences. But the true open kitchen and communication style of the staff tells guests immediately that this is going to be different.

Facebook, brand loyalty, experience, QSR, fast casual, experience curve
Brand loyalists use more experiential terms to describe their favorite brands (in orange), according to Facebook.

McDonald’s has been tinkering with their experience, to find ways to align with Fast Casuals. And some new ways to stand out. Make no mistake, McDonald’s understands they will never identify a new permanent model for experience. What they are testing is more likely how much change consumers need to feel in each experience? How similar does each visit need to be to feel familiar in a positive way? How different does each visit need to be to feel new?

There are typically three phases to the crest and fall of brands in this space. At Food & Restaurant Marketing, we call this the ‘experience curve.’

Trial phase

A guests first visits are critical to building repeat traffic and word of mouth. To survive this initial phase the restaurant has to fall in the middle of the experience curve outlined above. Some things should be familiar, some things new, zero things bad. Of course, this all presumes delicious food, well prepared.

For fast casual pizza concepts like Pie Five or Fired Pie, this is the layout of a traditional pizza restaurant. A walk-up counter that feels familiar, and visible toppings as people have become accustomed to at Subway or Chipotle. But the idea of choosing those toppings for a pizza is the twist; something new.

Comfort and exploration

In this phase, guests get more bold as they understand the concept. They have their ‘usual’ favorite items. They explore the menu and try to find new ways to enjoy the restaurant. New ways to make it their own. This might come as soon as a third visit. The guests begin to look for variations of the standard menu, or perhaps for ‘secret’ items a few more visits in.

Guest will begin probing the staff and often online for tips during this phase. This behavior is the maturation of the brand experience. But also, can lead to the next phase.

Cresting popularity

This phase may not begin for a long time. It is dependent on the ways people are able to experience and change the concept to their whims. When guests run out of new items to try, or ways to mix them up, frequency of visits begins to decline. Word of mouth slows.

The key is in extending the comfort and exploration phase by mixing up the menu and tweaking the experience. Add in new elements and take out tired ones to keep the experience fresh. Guests will reward brands who understand the experience curve.