HOW RESTAURANTS ARE EMOTIONALLY CONNECTING WITH PATRONS DURING COVID-19

HOW RESTAURANTS ARE EMOTIONALLY CONNECTING WITH PATRONS DURING COVID-19

Family Dining Category – Emotional Insights Research

During this pandemic era, it is more important than ever for restaurants to find a way to emotionally connect with patrons. These brands can do this by augmenting some of the processes they already have in place, like providing personal touches to patrons and regulars, or by utilizing methods long-used by other industries. This includes offering previews, videos, and highlights not just of food and the establishment, but also of staff and patrons. It also includes creating online (or social-distanced in-person) events with limited participants that are streamed, and working to solicit brand-centered user-generated content. Additionally, restaurant brands should ensure all marketing is focused on happiness (with appropriate humor only), fondness for the brand or experience created by the brand, and empathetic toward what everyone is dealing with during this difficult time.

1.Provide Personal Touches for New & Regular Patrons

  • When a new patron comes into a restaurant, best practices dictate that they are given a small token of appreciation for being a new customer. Typically that means the manager stops by to check on their visit or gives them a free dessert or something similar, but during pandemic times, this can be tougher, especially when most patrons are getting take-out. To adjust this, first-time patrons should be offered something free for ordering online; no need for it to be something expensive – it could be a free drink or a coupon for their next visit – just something to show appreciation of their visit and entice them to return.
  • NetWaiter states that “this personal touch connects and incentivizes a second visit.” They also state that if this practice is repeated on the second and third visits, it is much more likely that the patron will become a regular.
  • For first-time visitor and loyalty programs to work successfully, brands need to identify the status of each person who orders food (in-person, online, or via a third-party ordering service) as early in the process as possible. This gives the brand a chance to connect early in the pipeline with customers and turn them into loyal, connected patrons more quickly. QRS Magazine states that, utilizing the most up-to-date software to do this is important so that “restaurants can develop updated customer profiles and approaches that make it possible to build a stronger loyalty program that connects with customers emotionally and delivers better results now and over the long term.”
  • Sometimes it can be difficult to establish a new patron from a continued one (unless they’ve ordered directly from the restaurant online several times, then it’s easy!). With those who’ve visited (online or in-person) several times, it can be easier to create a stronger emotional connection through loyalty programs. Invite patrons to a loyalty program that offer incentives for ordering online, incentives for in-person dining, incentives for gift cards, incentives for participating in user-generated content marketing campaigns, and for anything else that might connect them back to the brand. Membership in these programs and perks that they really want make patrons feel like the restaurant appreciates them and better connects them to the brand.
  • In the pandemic age, it is more important than ever that marketing campaigns and loyalty programs “provide what customers need right now.” This could include not just offering incentives that patrons can use, but also offering options for them to share with others via the connection to the restaurant. This could include ways to donate “food or services to a local effort” or something similar.
  • One quick-and-easy way to make direct connections is by putting “hand-written notes in every food order,” according to GreenBook. Make these notes empathetic, fun, appropriately jovial, or something that really clicks with the patrons enough so that they want to show it off on social media. The goal is “a personal touch that is so good that people post it on Instagram/Facebook so that thousands of others see what you’re doing.” Just make sure not to use the same thing for everyone or that could backfire!

2. Preview/Highlight Food, Drinks, Attractions, and Personnel

  • One way of doing this is to highlight where the restaurant’s food comes from – like a chain-explanation that follows the food from its source to the table. Because “today’s guests are hungry to learn about more than just where their food came from,” restaurants can become “platforms for social interest,” for those interested in farm-to-table lifestyles, as well as those learning more about food sustainability.
  • Bluestem Brasserie, a San Francisco restaurant, runs a quarterly meeting (now online) called “Seeds for Conversations.” In these events, hosts bring in “farmers, ranchers, and other suppliers to discuss their methods and challenges.”
  • A series of blogs is another way to handle this (rather than hosted videos online), or a combination of blogs and hosted videos might be best during the pandemic. Food biographies, ones that tell engaging stories about the restaurant’s food – like signature dishes, for example, is another way to highlight foods and create connections with patrons.
  • Biographies of those working in the restaurant – especially when it’s a local restaurant or has a high-profile chef or sommelier, is another way to build connections between restaurants and patrons. Sharing stories, videos, or interviews with these individuals help patrons connect to the restaurant staff, without ever having to enter the establishment.
  • Russell House Tavern, a Boston-based restaurant located in a historic building, “secured a high-profile chef, mixologist, and operating group,” and highlighted these individuals and what they brought to the restaurant through a series of blogs that also “explored the evolution of the menu, glassware, and design elements.” This created a strong sense of local and historical connection with the restaurant (even prior to its opening).
  • One attraction idea would be to “host a VIP night” for local influencers – whether this is done through proper social distancing in the restaurant or done via Zoom (with the feed available for all to watch while it’s happening and/or afterwards). If done in person, this could give the chef and staff “a chance to put on a show, delivering a wonderful impression of your restaurant,” and engendering connection with those who watch the feed/video.

3. Create Online Participatory Activities w/ Limited Openings

  • One way that restaurants can create emotional bonds with patrons is by holding online cooking classes that feature the restaurant’s chefs teaching participants how to cook one or more of the restaurant’s signature dishes. Promote this ahead of time on social media, and limit sign-up spot so that people experience FOMO (fear of missing out); this will help keep people’s interest high (whether they attend the class or not), and will help those who miss out on one class to register for the next one. Scheduling these regularly (like twice a month) might keep interest very high, especially during times when people are less likely to visit the restaurant in-person.
  • These activities don’t just need to be focused on connecting directly with patrons; they can focus on direct connections to the local community and involve the patrons. QSR Web notes that providing opportunities to help locals – like serving food for front-line workers or providing free meals in low-income areas – and involving patrons in some way is a strong methodology to use.
  • One suggestion for this is to host a day where front-line workers eat free – and offer patrons a way to support this. It is not recommended that the restaurant ask patrons to buy these free meals (or that would reflect poorly on the brand), but rather the restaurant find a way to offer something else – like for every meal that a patron supports/buys two free meals go to another charity of the patron’s choice. It’s very important that this is approached carefully so the brand doesn’t look like it’s not being equitable or charitable.
  • Eastern Standard, a busy and popular Boston restaurant that’s a favorite of local baseball fans and university students, launched a series of cooking classes that quickly sold out. The restaurant reported that “about three-quarters of participants were new faces who subsequently became regulars.” During pandemic conditions, this would have to change from in-person classes to online – and could be hosted where all participants could see each other in their individual kitchens – through a program like Zoom.

4. Solicit User-Generated Content (UGC)

  • NetWaiter notes how “user-generated content is gold.” This is especially true for pandemic times when people are looking for ways to connect with people outside their quarantine group. Soliciting UGC from patrons – those eating inside the restaurant and those getting take-out – is a sure way to create authenticity for the brand, which is highly important to about 86% of consumers, according to Forbes’ research. UGC is a strong method used to develop engagement and create connection with patrons.
  • One original suggestion (not from a source, though based in source ideas) is to ask for UGC featuring take-out patrons eating the restaurant’s food in their personal location – like at home, in the backyard, on a picnic, or some other place that demonstrates strong social distancing – yet connects patrons directly back to the food and restaurant. Creating a campaign asking patrons for their pictures would create quite a buzz and would inspire those wishing to be a marketing of the campaign to upload their photos. A contest could be coupled with this for greater impact.
  • Additionally, patrons who participate in one of the cooking events or online activities should be encouraged to post follow-up meals they’ve cooked themselves on the restaurant’s social media pages, which could not only spur additional interest in future events, but would show how the brand is supporting and connecting with current patrons struggling through the pandemic at home.
  • QSR Web’s research shows that “64% of consumers expect their usage of YouTube to increase,” which offers another way restaurants can connect with and create emotional connections with patrons. Patrons who desperately miss eating out in restaurants and who are having a tough time staying stuck at home would definitely love to watch the restaurant’s chef in action via video – or watch an activity via video that connects them back to their own memories of the good times they had there.

5. Create Marketing Focused on Happiness & Empathy

  • Since most restaurants tend to market by “playing the hunger card,” steer clear of this alone and fill the restaurant’s social media pages and blogs with more than just food and cocktails images. Showing happy staff while working, humorous shots with frivolous captions, and leveraging the unusual features of the establishment, its staff, or its food will create a funny/happy emotional connection with the restaurant. Local restaurants with charitable connections can also highlight those to create connections with the giving crowd.
  • Building the restaurant’s email list by asking for feedback from patrons (dining in or carrying out) is a strong recommendation for this. What would make patrons happier or more connected? Ask them! Include options to provide feedback with all online orders (even those through third-party delivery services), and highlight excellent feedback on social media. Sometimes, it’s even helpful to show negative feedback with the restaurant’s direct and considerate response to the issue highlighted within the complaint; this proves the brand is dedicated to making all customers happy and feeling good about the establishment.
  • With negative reviews or comments, addressing these truthfully and transparently is key, even when it’s a tough pill for the brand to swallow. Forbes warns that “now is not the time to issue empty reassurances and sugar coat bad news.” Rather, approach messaging and marketing with genuine, empathetic statements that directly address the concern – and demonstrate the restaurant’s connection to the concern, as well as how it is addressed so that customers’ needs are better met.
  • The marketing should demonstrate empathy throughout its messaging, according to Forbes. Showing patrons (or potential patrons) that the brand understands what they’re feeling is important; during pandemic times, connecting on a human/personal level about common fears is one way to handle this. The key to being successful at this is to listen and learn – hear what patrons, staff, and the public are saying and learn ways to incorporate appropriate, empathetic responses within marketing messages.
  • Asking restaurant staff and patrons to share their own accounts – the good and the bad – and gearing all finalized messaging toward being connected with one another and supportive of one another is important, as well.
  • This kind of marketing gives patrons and staff a chance to show their own humanity and uniqueness, hopefully through the veil of appropriate levity and personality. When the public sees a brand as more human, they are much more likely to feel an emotional connection toward that brand.
  • LYFE Kitchen’s social media and marketing focus “exemplifies their mission of ‘eat good, feel good, do good,’ by highlighting the establishment’s menu and décor, as well as how they participate in “community-driven charity partnerships.” This kind of do-good connection is especially connective with Millennials, one of the biggest groups of restaurant patrons.

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Connecting emotionally with consumers can happen on a variety of levels for brands and can be achieved through a wide selection of methodologies. This connection can be created through marketing campaigns, social media support and posting, safety and security options offered to patrons, convenience options added to the dining experience, and other ways.
Over the last few years, Denny’s has been in-progress on a revitalization campaign designed to remind former patrons why they liked the brand, and encourage new patrons to connect with the brand. The efforts include a campaign called “See You at Denny’s,” as well as direct and financial support to community relief efforts. Their authentic engagement on social media has been adjusted to meet the demands of the pandemic era, and they’re showing support for other businesses by creating an online challenge. They’ve also supported other efforts, in conjunction with the revitalization efforts, showing their dedication to diversity and support of all individuals, like participation in the #StopHateForProfit campaign.
Additionally, they’ve shown their dedication to the environment by partnering with a meat-substitute provider, which helps them connect on a deeper level with today’s modern consumer. They’ve also instituted multiple safety, security, and convenience protocols proving to their customers that they’re listening to what’s most important to them and making changes to support those needs. Lastly, they’re showing direct support for franchisees, since these are important members of each community in which their establishments sit, which rings true with today’s consumer, especially in the time of Covid-19.

ITEM 1: Creating the Marketing Campaign “See You at Denny’s” & ITEM 2: Brand Revitalization Efforts

  • In 2019, Denny’s launched a new marketing campaign called “See You at Denny’s,” that highlights the “company’s diversity efforts while also inviting customers into its revitalization efforts.” Part of this is a redesign of the brand’s establishments toward the “brand’s Heritage design,” which it began the first quarter of 2019.
  • The redesign has made a huge percentage of the brand’s restaurants “more modern and comfortable,” as well as being designed more to meet the modern consumers’ shifting tastes. It also includes highlighting the brand’s support of not just their local communities, but also communities all over the country – through donating to and supporting initiatives like Hungry for Education, No Kid Hungry, and the brand’s own Mobile Relief Diner.
  • The tagline for the campaign invites consumers to come back to Denny’s if they haven’t eaten there awhile, and provides a jump-off point for patrons to directly connect to the brand – through hashtags and user-generated content showing patrons dining in the establishment. The brand states that the campaign “is a sign of our continued commitment across the organization to create a place where the modern American family can come together and connect over a delicious meal.”

ITEM 3: Engaging Authentically on Social Media & ITEM 4: Creating a Business-Supporting Challenge

  • Forbes points out how “you can’t help but laugh as you scroll through the Denny’s Twitter account – the company deftly engages its customers in a way that feels fun, organic, and true to its brand.” When the pandemic hit, Denny’s immediately paused their social media posting for a few days to reevaluate their strategies, approaches, and language. Typically, the brand was noted for their conversational, light, and jovial tones and approaches, which didn’t fit with the current situation experienced by Americans and those all over the globe.
  • To address current needs, they worked with their advertising partners to balance their “unique social tone” with the focus of spreading “messages of unity and hope” because they believed that that’s what patrons needed most at the time.
  • Throughout the pandemic, they’ve increased their social listening strategies, keeping better track of consumer sentiment, as well as evaluating their ideas, approaches, and content on a daily basis. Their pandemic content features highlights of the brand’s support of franchisees, front-line workers, and the communities in which their establishments sit.
  • Additionally, they “ignited the #OneTableChallenge via social media to support the full-service restaurant industry and challenge CEOs from other restaurant groups to order from a competitor,” to show support for all businesses struggling, not just their own brand.
  • Each of these demonstrates the brand’s willingness to listen to the needs to their community and give support within their communities, all of which leads to greater emotional connection among patrons (and non-patrons alike).

ITEM 5: Supporting the #StopHateForProfit Boycott

  • In support of the brand boycott of Facebook (#StopHateForProfit), Denny’s joined in the and paused their paid advertising on the social media site. They stated, “As America’s Diner, we offer an inclusive and welcoming environment where all people can enjoy a nice meal and we strongly oppose hate speech of any kind,” and noted that the social media channel had not done enough to stop the flow of “hate speech and disinformation.” Since this is a trending topic on social media right now and of great importance to society, Denny’s stepping up in this way was sure endear them to many patrons, who also support these efforts.
  • That said, however, it is also likely to create some animosity in individuals who believe otherwise. While animosity is also an emotional connection, this type of emotional connection is a negative side effect of some individuals’ negative mindsets, and should not dissuade the brand from continuing to support these stop-the-hate efforts. Since Denny’s has had historical issues with diversity and discrimination against people of color, the brand standing up in this way demonstrates their ability to change with the times and support what’s right for Americans – which will surely promote strong emotional connections with the brand in the future.

ITEM 6: Partnering to Reduce Meat Dependency

  • In late 2019, the brand partnered with Beyond Meat to launch the brand-specific “Denny’s Beyond Burger,” in efforts to support reducing meat dependency (which, in turn, supports the environment). The brand launched the new meatless burger by offering a free Beyond Burger with a beverage purchase as long as supplied held out. Their intention was to roll out the new delicacy nationwide in 2020.
  • The brand stated they believed the new meatless burger would be “well-received by longtime fans and new guests alike,” and they hoped the menu addition would help the brand introduce “more families to the nutritional and environmental benefits of consuming plant-based meat.” This demonstrates the brand’s willingness to meet the changing needs / wants of today’s consumer, and to connect on a deeper level with patrons (especially since many of today’s patrons want healthier options that reflect sustainable practices).

ITEM 7: Highlighting Safety Protocols to Put Patrons’ Minds at Ease

  • National Restaurant News highlights how, when dining restrictions eased and restaurants were allowed to reopen with social distancing measures in place (in May), how the Denny’s brand encouraged their franchisees to “have a dedicated sanitation specialist who disinfects after every guest,” and who leaves a card at each table that displays precautions taken and “notifying new guests that the area has been disinfected.” Speaking through the procedures and the card, the brand is showing its dedication to what’s most important to all Americans right now – safety while they’re out of their homes – which is sure to keep that connection to the brand strong.
  • The company also notes that, to address patrons’ fears of touching anything in public (very high in Americans’ minds at this time), they are adding in safety features like bathroom door kickplates and “sneeze guards at registers.” This is similar to what most businesses are doing, but shows the brand’s dedication to meeting customers’ immediate and primary needs for safety and security, and doing it publicly so that patrons can recognize this from the brand, which in turn, creates a stronger emotional connection.

ITEM 8: Providing a Pay-at-the-Table Option & Delivery Options

  • In 2019, Denny’s partnered with Presto, “the restaurant industry’s end-to-end front-of-house (FOH) technology platform,” to provide a pay-at-the-table solution in the establishment’s franchises. These platforms offer a fully-secure method of payment, which speaks to Denny’s support of their customers security and privacy concerns.
  • The platforms also offer “rich guest features such as consumer feedback surveys and loyalty program integration,” which demonstrates the brand’s social listening skills in interacting with their customers directly and providing them with benefits for their continued patronage of the brand. Brands that offer convenient (and cool) options to patrons that recognize some of their primary needs (safety, security, convenience) are those that patrons connect more emotionally with – on more levels than just the typical surface levels of most brands.
  • Additionally, the brand has partnered with multiple third-party delivery services to further address “the consumer’s desire for convenience” in interacting with their brand. This has become especially important during the time pandemic era, when (as mentioned in the initial findings) the company added in the bonus of suspending delivery fees. These conveniences and kindnesses demonstrate the brand’s willingness to listen to consumer needs and fulfill them with options and alternatives, again demonstrating their commitment to creating emotional connection with the brand.

ITEM 9: Supporting Franchisees to Ensure Community Connections Stay Strong

  • According to Denny’s business update (responding to the pandemic), they detail how they are supporting franchisees, so that those businesses can remain open and keep the community connection with the brand alive in those areas. Denny’s has provided direct financial relief to franchisees, and will continue these direct support programs, through royalty abatements/deferrals, as well as through facility leases.
  • The restaurant also notes that 99% of their domestic franchises have received federal relief through the PPP (Paycheck Protection Program), to ensure they could pay their staff and keep the establishments open. Supporting staff through both brand-only and public programs helps create an emotional connection to the brand with staff especially, but also with members of the public who are receiving similar help, as this helps unify all parties.

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