Today’s restauranteurs face unique challenges amid the pandemic as they navigate through the highs and lows of new consumer expectations. The majority of brands’ focus centers around functional benefits like operational changes to ensure guests and employees have a safe, superior and contact-free experience. In the midst of this change, it’s easy to overlook the essential marketing function. Now more than ever, marketing needs to adjust its messages more frequently to emotionally align to shifting consumer behaviors, wants, and needs.

Marco’s Pizza, a 950-plus unit pizza franchise, continues to weather the pandemic, experiencing record breaking sales. Marco’s Chief Experience Officer, Steve Seyferth, credits two key factors leading to the brand’s success. First, its proficient delivery and carryout model; and second, its franchisees’ commitment to making a positive difference in their communities. Their giveback stories inspired a strategic marketing shift, igniting a sense of pride within the entire brand.

PODCAST: Marco’s president on how the chain has lifted sales 20 percent during COVID-19

With close to 40 years of experience in the advertising and digital media space, Seyferth played an integral role in some of the biggest blue-chip moments in marketing—including leading the team that created the iconic Gatorade “Be Like Mike” campaign, which was tabbed by USA Today in 2015 as the “best sports commercial” of all time. From these experiences, he’s learned the importance of reaching consumers with the heart and the head. QSR sat down with Seyferth to discuss marketing’s ability to tap into human emotions, a key strategy restaurant brands must decipher to prevail post-pandemic.

Here were the top takeaways:

The “Future Customer” Comes First

Similar to the complete paradigm shift experienced after 9/11—it’s safe to say that the COVID-19 pandemic will be a defining moment for our country’s culture. Today’s consumer has a heightened awareness about cleanliness, food preparation, dining expectations, and overall brand operations. As any great marketer may know, the customer is at the center of marketing. All the changes and abnormalities in their lives should play a significant role in the way quick-service restaurants market their business. Those who pay attention to and speak to “future customer” wants and needs will prevail.

Be Different

Throughout the pandemic, consumers have seen many brands talking about “unprecedented times” and touting how “we’re all in this together.” Unfortunately, after seeing the same message so many times, it all begins to look and sound all too similar—eventually diluting its meaning and uniqueness.

“Strive to be different and focus on identifying the sweet spot between consumer emotion and capturing the spirit of your brand,” Seyferth says. 

Marco’s recently debuted a national ad spot, Delivering Memories, that flips the narrative we’ve seen a multitude of brands take amid the pandemic. With so many marketers focused on the message of “Unprecedented Times” with their advertising and showcasing the new world with the drumbeat of “We are all in this Together,” Marco’s put a focus on celebrating the smaller, meaningful memories—powered by pizza—that did happen like nightly family dinners, reading time, picnics, games and more. The against-the-grain approach centers on creating comfort and optimism by living in the present, appreciating the little moments that did happen.

“Our goal is to communicate we are open, operating safely, and we are there for our communities as they continue to celebrate the little moments in life,” Seyferth says. “With this narrative, we were able to capture the head and the heart of the consumer while also capturing the spirit of Marco’s—leaning into our Italian heritage, which is all about celebrating moments and bringing people together in a safe way.”

Be Sensitive

Sensitivity and a true understanding of the target audience, their day-to-day lives, and values reigns supreme in the new COVID-19 world. Listen to what your customer is saying and doing. How are they feeling? By listening, you are equipping yourself with a better understanding of how your brand can help them realize a sense of normalcy, unity, and optimism.

For Marco’s, its “Delivering Memories” platform captured the sensitivity around how customers are feeling. Instead of dwelling on what was missed, it was an uplifting, motivational message focused on memories being made, which translated unprecedented engagement in the brand both by consumers as well as employees. While it helped boost sales and motivate employees at the store level, more importantly, it has increased brand sentiment and loyalty.

As for delivery of your marketing message, be selective in how you elect to reach your customer. Seyferth says, “The ‘old reliables’ like direct mailers, flyers, and door hangers will likely become a thing of the past due to their more invasive, tangible nature. Future marketing efforts should be adjusted to fit the new digital world to be most effective for today’s contact-free consumer.”

Stay Connected 

Finally, keep in mind as we navigate through these turbulent times, the one thing we can be certain of is change. Successful restaurant marketers should make an effort to build a strong network of industry professionals to inform and inspire them. Try implementing regular franchisee marketing advisory meetings, expand your network virtually, and actively seek insights from other professionals.

“This is a new era for all of us—let’s blend our great minds, inspire one another, and innovate for our respected brands,” Seyferth adds.

Business Advice, Marketing & Promotions, Outside Insights, Story, Marco's Pizza