When the pandemic hit, everything changed. Restaurants that once relied entirely on in-person dining suddenly needed a curbside program. Bars that mainly leaned into alcohol sales started improving the food menu. And, the slow-to-adopt started sprinting towards launching digital programs.

Consumers, meanwhile, defined new paths for their dollar. They became more community conscious, more supportive of the local restaurants and small businesses they love, and more likely to discover other new local establishments.

It’s a significant shift in consumer behavior from the once-a-year token of appreciation paid to local vendors during the Small Business Saturdays of yesteryear. Consumers are more local minded than ever before. So, what is the national brand to do?

The answer lies in communication. Traditionally, local brands communicated to targeted local audiences in emails and social media, while national brands speak to broader audiences with more sweeping campaigns. Today’s marketing plan must bring local-level communications to all brands, across several key considerations:

Expressing your localness

Most national chain restaurants are owned and operated by local franchisees struggling with the same challenges as small business owners during the pandemic. Showcase your localness! Be direct about the support you need and give consumers a local face to support. Wherever possible, promote your workers too. If you feature the workers on the restaurant’s front lines, it helps to humanize your brand and drive home the importance of coming to the restaurant.

Growing the list, and fast

Sort of like the “slow to adopt digital tools until it was too late” crowd, many restaurant brands failed to encourage customers to sign up for messaging. But now is the time to use the megaphone and drive traffic. If your brand needs to beef up its marketing clout, consider giving your customers a reason to sign up for email or download your app. Many brands are offering discounts or free items to customers who opt-in for future communications.

Communicating coronavirus changes

People might assume your brand is taking contactless precautions and offering curbside pickup, but they can’t know for sure in the absence of communication. But you can count on the fact that your competitors are communicating their changes during COVID-19. By expressing COVID-safe precautions and processes, you’ve not only made your customers feel safer, but you’ve also differentiated your brand from less communicative and perhaps less precautionary competitors.

Building local promotions

One of the best ways to drive a sense of connection to the local community is to take advantage of timely events and situations. Many brands offer specials or invite customers to order when local sports teams are playing. Sports are always a mainstay of local marketing, but they aren’t the only creative local events. Another out-of-the-box idea could center around the back to school season, encouraging parents to take a break from food preparation. The more in touch your messaging is with customers’ day-to-day lives, the more effectively you will position your brand as a welcomed partner.

Establishing (and touting) local partnerships

If the pandemic has engendered anything, it’s a sense of togetherness. If your restaurant has already established partnerships with other brands doing work in the local community, now is the time to celebrate the relationship. Feed first responders. Offer discounts to police officers or hospital workers. By doing so, customers can view their engagement with your brand as direct support for essential workers in the local community.

Opening up the menu options

Another change during the pandemic? Shifting norms in dayparts. More remote workers and greater unemployment led to a decline in breakfast visitors. Bar closures and the cancellation of in-person events led to a reduction in dinner and late-night dining. The reality of the day is that your menu might need a second look. Many brands have moved breakfast availability to anytime. The new playbook says make everything available all the time.

For as long as the pandemic continues to impact our lives, little is clear about the future of dining. National brands, franchisees and local purveyors alike are holding on for dear life. There is no predicting exactly when the foodservice industry will return to something akin to a pre-pandemic “normal.” As such, brands must use today’s unprecedented marketplace as the launching pad for better digital tools and more effective communications or face the prospect of extinction.

Hope Neiman is the Chief Marketing Officer of Tillster, a leading global player in the burgeoning restaurant technology space. Hope and her team drive outcomes by combining data and technology to expand sales and increase consumer engagement in a measurable way. Through Hope’s marketing expertise and brand vision, Tillster grew from a kiosk company into a best-in-class, metric rich engagement and ordering solutions provider for multi-unit national and international restaurant brands. The Tillster platform provides visibility and impact on millions of transactions daily, around the world, for more than 50 of the world’s largest quick-service, fast casual, and casual dining brands. 

Marketing & Promotions, Outside Insights, Story