We’ve all been there: 3 p.m. rolls around and we’re rummaging through the cabinets looking for snacks or pouring that second cup of coffee to get us through the day until dinnertime. As marketers working in the food and beverage industry, it’s important to understand the “why” behind the cravings people have at certain times of the day, or why they favor certain menu items during different seasons. Once the science and psychology of eating are understood, our strategy of marketing the right menu items at the right time with the right message comes into a clearer focus. 

Research into hunger reveals two main impulses behind this phenomenon. The first is your body’s primal need for calories to sustain energy, and the second is a more spontaneous “craving” for food. Nutritionists and psychologists refer to these seemingly opposite impulses as “homeostatic hunger” and “hedonic hunger,” with the former seen as a natural biological function and the latter more of a psychologically-driven behavior.

Marketing messages in the restaurant space have traditionally focused on homeostatic hunger through tactics such as dayparting, featuring different menu items at different points of the day such as breakfast or lunch. Many limited time offers, or LTOs, lean toward satisfying hedonic pleasures and are generally measured by how effective they are at driving foot traffic into physical locations (after all, no one needs a Unicorn Frappuccino in order to survive, but they sure look refreshing … right?)

To evolve on their approach, marketers can put this science to work by first establishing a deep understanding of existing customers and their order history. Is their ordering habitual, or do they order once a month during a promotional period? Customers who stop by your restaurant habitually as part of their daily or weekly routines often do so out of convenience, or more subconsciously, because it gives them a sense of control in their lives. “My morning coffee” is another way of saying “my daily ritual.” These types of customers would benefit the most from messaging focused on ensuring consistency, such as an app download or order ahead functionality that saves their preferences, and ultimately, their time. Naturally, mobile devices are a perfect pairing for this type of daily ritual. A low-frequency video advertising campaign could also serve as an upselling vehicle for your existing customers, frequent or occasional, showcasing add-on or new menu items to remind them that your menu is evolving even if their favorites are well established. 

For those customers with more hedonic tendencies, certain triggers can drive them to order certain types of foods. Weather can play a major factor in their ordering behavior, for example. During the dark and cold winter months, people crave foods high in carbs and fats (you may know these as “comfort foods”) since these foods trigger a release of the hormones dopamine, endorphins and serotonin, which generate a short-term mood boost. Come summer, people look for cooling foods and refreshing drinks served in social settings, so it’s no mistake that the “White Claw” phenomena of 2019 peaked during July and August when people were poolside or grilling in the backyard.

One way for marketers to take advantage of seasonal cravings is to combine them with another trending topic, that of “functional foods.” This millennial-driven trend seeks to highlight the benefits of certain foods beyond basic nutrition, such as CBD infused foods for stress relief, or fermented foods for gut health. Using our seasonal example, Vitamin C has been known to protect skin from sun damage and help the body regulate heat, so perhaps your customer should pack one of your blended juices along with their sunblock to the beach. Or during winter, perhaps the oatmeal on your breakfast menu features a note about its high levels of immune-boosting Zinc? These additions let the customer know that you are thinking of their needs and providing health benefits beyond satisfying a seasonal craving. 

In addition to messaging, it’s important to think about how your customers access your menu and make purchases, whether via traditional on-premise/dine-in or through off-premise takeout and delivery, which has seen impressive growth over the last few years.

Lessons can be learned based on how people make purchases in a retail setting. Shoppers are more likely to make impulse purchases in-store due to their inherent immediate availability, as well as the influence of store associates, with 89 percent of women and 78 percent of men who visit physical stores adding additional items to their cart beyond their identified need. The same is true for restaurants, as “upselling” results in increased average order sizes when staff is trained to recommend additional menu add-ons. Think of the classic example of “would you like fries with that?”. 

For any initiative focused on driving in-store foot traffic via dine-in or takeout, the most important consideration for a consumer’s decision to visit a merchant is proximity. Roughly 93 percent of consumers travel 20 minutes or less to make their everyday purchases, with an average of 9 minutes for fast food and 12 minutes for casual dining. While the proximity threshold when ordering delivery might be wider, the takeaway for marketers is that they should focus their budgets on highlighting local availability, as this trend will only accelerate as urbanization continues to increase across the US and globally. 

A great way to execute on this strategy is to focus on short form video units that run across Connected TV and OTT content, showcasing your menu highlights in addition to the contact info for the closest store location. A desktop and mobile unit can also feature that same video, with additional interactive elements including dynamic store locators, customizable menu items and click to order functionality. Adding this type of creative execution with our recommendations on customer segmentation by hunger motivation, order frequency, and seasonality adds up to a highly relevant marketing campaign for your customers. 

Allen H. Kelson, a restaurant consultant, once sarcastically wrote, “If admen had souls, many would probably trade them for an opportunity every restaurateur already has: the ability to place an advertisement in every customer’s hand before they part with their money.” With an understanding of our customer’s needs and desires helping us deliver timely and impactful marketing across all devices, we’re one step closer to regaining those souls and creating some amazing customer experiences along the way.

As Vice President of Account Planning, Jim Johnson is responsible for leveraging VDX.tv’s consumer research and insights tools to develop holistic marketing strategies aimed at guiding clients toward their desired digital advertising outcomes. Prior to joining VDX.tv, Jim worked as a Media Planner with Carat on brands including Reebok, VH1, RadioShack and Motorola. 

Marketing & Promotions, Outside Insights, Story