Sonic Drive-In Finds the Fast Lane During COVID-19

    In a year where eating in your car became cool again, the classic brand kept evolving.

    Fast Food | March 10, 2021 | Danny Klein
    Sonic Drive-In exterior of new design.
    Sonic Drive-In
    Sonic Drive-In is now offering the ability to tip carhops at 1,000 locations.

    It doesn’t take a case study or detective work to understand why Sonic Drive-In experienced a different COVID-19 than most restaurants. After all, it’s in the name. The brand’s pull-up design and throwback DNA became the ideal “old-is-new” outlet of a global pandemic. Crowd avoidance as the price to entry. A time when eating in your car became the new night out with friends or family.

    Yet the story didn’t end there. Lori Abou Habib, Sonic’s chief marketing officer, called 2020 “a really eventful year in digital across the industry.”

    And Sonic was no exception. Its digital infrastructure, known fittingly as ICE (integrated customer engagement), was built to secure a leadership role in quick-service personalization.

    From a high level, Sonic’s mobile-order ahead technology works as part of an overall environment in ways other chains can’t replicate via drive thru or dine-in service alone. Guests scroll through menu options, place an order, customize it, and then drive up to a pad full of pull-in stalls. They upload the number of their stall, get a personalized greeting on a digital menu screen, and sit back and wait.

    “It lets our guests be first in line every time with that drive-in service model,” Abou Habib said Tuesday during a virtual event. “You can pull up and access your order without having to wait in the drive-thru queue, which we think is a big advantage and something our customers really, really enjoy.” The drive-thru option is there for guests, too, of course.

    Sonic took this COVID opportunity to think through next steps. One thing Abou Habib said customers asked for was the ability to tip carhops. “It is in the, I’d say, top two requests that we hear continuously from consumers,” she said.

    Sonic is currently offering the option in 1,000 stores, with systemwide rollout on deck for later in the year. “That’s going to be welcomed news to all of our carhops, but also obviously to our guests who have been looking for that functionality,” Abou Habib said.

    She added the decision was “100 percent” related to consumer feedback. Tipping oscillates with “expanding Sonic’s menu” as the No. 1 and No. 2 most-requested in-app updates.

    Earlier this year, Sonic also extended its off-premises ordering capability (its order-ahead platform) to web. Doing so opened the funnel for a wave of new customers, Abou Habib said. People who might not quite be ready to download Sonic’s app, yet want to try out its digital ordering capability. Guests can access rewards as well promotions through web ordering, which enables Sonic to incentivize visits for medium to light users.

    During COVID, Sonic witnessed an influx of first-time consumers using its app in addition to core users simply accessing it more often. The brand deployed a cross-functional acquisition strategy between its text program and the app, trying to get one guest to try the other. It also did a TV spot talking about the ability to leverage contactless order and payment. Outside of that, though, Sonic just stayed the course. “A lot of that just seemed to happen organically,” Abou Habib said.

    Sonic launched a new marketing campaign in early 2020 ahead of the pandemic. Splitting from the “Two Guys” spots of old, the brand put focus on real families enjoying authentic occasions. The goal being to showcase the breadth of Sonic’s offerings, from beverage to late night to group meals.

    Timing was interesting, however. One of the cores tenets of the original campaign was celebratory moments at Sonic, like graduations. Naturally, COVID jumbled traditions. School itself wasn’t even taking place in-person anymore.

    Thankfully, there was flexibility within the campaign, Abou Habib said. Sonic made adjustments like featuring family members in the car versus what could be construed as friends, and breaking CDC guidelines. “Also, we were able to tap into some of those missed opportunities and do a couple of fun things,” Abou Habib said.

    For instance, Sonic hosted a “QuraranKing” and “QuaranQueen” contest where guests submitted pictures of themselves in prom attire on Instagram explaining why they deserved to win Sonic’s prize of a new car. Sonic crowned Ryan Taneja from Benton, Arkansas, and Malyssa Mecham from American Fork, Utah.

    Taneja threw a socially distant prom from the trunk of his car in a Sonic drive-in stall. Mecham designed a dress made up of Sonic wrappers.

    “We were able to pivot quickly and kind of incorporate those moments in a different way than we were intended, but we were still able to get that in the brand voice, which was great. And deliver some of those moments,” Abou Habib said.

    Asked whether the “Two Guys” would ever return, Abou Habib said, “you never know what the future holds. But I will tell you for the immediate future we don’t have plans to put them back in the ads for right now.”

    Alongside Sonic’s new brand identity, it also debuted a reimagined prototype modern in architecture yet nostalgic in direction. Known as “Delight” and created in tandem with agency ChangeUP, it features 18 docks, a drive-thru, and a covered outdoor patio where guests can dine under string lights and enjoy lawn games.

    The layout has fewer and wider car docks than normal that don’t cross over the drive-thru lane. The exterior pops with red, blue, and a bit of yellow, intended to remind “guests that summertime is a feeling, not just a season,” Sonic said. Additionally, thanks to a lenticular stripe detail, the building itself moves with you as it changes colors as you drive around the building. It also features a blue glass tower with a brightly lit cherry atop to pay homage to the 9-million-plus Cherry Limeades served each year.

    While Sonic didn’t provide further details, it does boast a new kitchen layout built to boost efficiency.

    Sonic Drive-In
    Sonic Drive-In

    Sonic's new design will represent the brand look moving forward.

    The first opened in Tahlequah, Oklahoma. A second was built in Fort Worth, Texas. And Sonic is looking at all new builds moving forward with the updated look and feel.

    “This year, we’re also looking at what that new look and feel will translate to our existing drive ins, and so expect us to be launching a retrofit package in [2022]. So a lot of exciting stuff going on with the visual identity of the brand,” Abou Habib said.

    On the culinary front, in the two years leading up to 2020, Sonic removed about 25 percent of its menu items. But it didn’t take the same approach during COVID, as many chains did in an effort to get lean and cut costs. “We had already done so in a way that really enabled our operations, which is why we did it before—to make sure we had better capacity, better throughput, and better bandwidth without crews,” Abou Habib said. “So no, we didn’t need to slim down our menu [in 2020]. We do think one of the reasons Sonic was such a high-performing choice during the pandemic was because we had so many choices and so much variety, and we know that is something that’s incredibly meaningful to our consumers.”

    Sonic Drive-In

    COOP Ale Works will handle the production out of the gate.

    Sonic Hard Seltzers are coming

    Speaking of culinary innovation, Sonic plans to introduce Hard Seltzer to retail in May. In partnership with fellow Oklahoma-City based COOP Ale Works, the product will launch in two variety 12 packs (Tropical and Citrus), as well as Cherry Limeade and Ocean Water.

    “I think it’s going to be huge,” Scott Uehlein, Sonic’s VP of product innovation and development said.

    They’ll be available at select retailers, statewide in Texas, Oklahoma, Kansas, Arkansas, and Nebraska. And Kansas City and Columbia, Missouri. Abou Habib didn’t rule out further expansion. “We’ll see what happens after that,” she said. “… Getting a ton of really excited buzz.”

    Sean Mossman, president of COOP Ale Works, initially reached out to Sonic. He said they launched a hard seltzer last year and were successful with cherry lime. “At some point, the idea came to us that we wanted to reach out to Sonic and see if there was an opportunity to collaborate on more Sonic-inspired flavors for the line. And quite frankly, it was a pretty easy conversation,” Mossman said.

    COOP Ale Works will handle the production out of the gate. “We have high hopes, a lot of expectations, and we’re pretty confident it’s going to be a major player in the seltzer space,” he said.