For fast food and casual-dining brands looking to stay ahead of the curve, it’s time to explore how the metaverse fits into their customer engagement strategy. The earliest adopters are already using metaverse activations as a tool to increase digital engagement, and many have filed a flurry of trademarks to protect their name and other assets in the emerging virtual universe. A metaverse presence and continued ownership and control of a brand is crucial to the future of restaurants in an increasingly digital world. 

This comes even as none of us can eat in the metaverse—at least not yet—and as only 38 percent of Americans say they are familiar with the metaverse. Despite the lack of clarity (and cloud of hype) around the metaverse, there is growing confidence that the steps brands take there today will be key for survival. 

Brands should consider the metaverse as a way to further develop loyalty programs, which today are mostly transactional and focused on discounts. While some brands, like Starbucks, have had loyalty programs for years, a growing number of brands, including McDonalds, Popeyes, and Taco Bell, have recently launched or revamped their programs. Loyalty programs drive business while creating more data, which is key to reaching additional customers and making smart business decisions. Data garnered from loyalty programs is valuable because it does not rely on third parties, which is becoming a less stable avenue for collecting data as privacy and other ethical concerns grow.

At the same time, loyalty programs are challenging because brands realize that they can’t give endless discounts or items for free; this will eat away at margins and won’t necessarily build true loyalty with customers. While there’s still no clear winning model for a non-transactional loyalty program in the restaurant category, companies should be considering engagement in the metaverse as an avenue to build unique customer relationships and real loyalty.

Gamification of Food

The metaverse, where the most developed use-case is for games like Fortnite and Minecraft, offers brands a way to leverage gamification to build loyalty. Gamification has long been at the center of transactional loyalty and discount programs in the analog world. For example, since 1987, McDonald’s has run its annual Monopoly campaign, which recently morphed into a similar NFL-themed game in the U.S. market, where customers collect tokens from menu items and combine them to receive discounts on future purchases or become eligible for millions in a few cash prizes.

The metaverse offers a natural landscape to expand this concept into the digital world. Chipotle, which now has a location inside the Roblox game platform modeled on its original 1993 flagship restaurant in Denver, recently launched a game in which participants roll their own burritos and win currency they can spend on real-world food items. Burger King’s Keep it Real campaign awarded NFTs when diners scanned the QR codes of certain food items. And Wendy’s has launched a full-fledged world on Meta’s Horizon Worlds app, opening up the potential for linking activities there to real-world purchases. Brands can take advantage of blockchain and NFTs to not only entertain and engage customers, but to deal with some of the challenges that come with analog real-life games, such as fraud or lost tokens.

New ways to reach (and reward) key audiences

Many fast food brands continue to prioritize certain groups of consumers, such as young families and digitally savvy Millennials and Gen Z’s with disposable income, and brands should also consider how the metaverse can play into their engagement strategy. For example, for young families, metaverse experiences can be an extension of the play areas or toys included in childrens’ meals that have long drawn them to fast-food restaurants. Immersive virtual experiences centered around brands could not only offer entertainment the way play areas do, but could include educational programs about healthy eating and reducing waste, making parents feel good about buying the brand’s food.

Virtual reality events in the metaverse, like concerts and other shows, provide additional outlets for brands to offer consumers unique experiences as rewards for participating in loyalty programs. This approach has roots in brands’ long-time sponsored partnerships with movie stars, athletes, and other celebrities to help drive campaigns. But this type of metaverse engagement takes these partnerships a step further, allowing brands to offer customers exclusive experiences not possible in real life.

Another channel to order food

Fast food restaurants have traditionally placed a large emphasis on real-estate and geographic placement of store locations, viewing this as a way to increase the number of customers they can reach. Brands need to extend this technique to the metaverse, as that will be the step in meeting customers where they are. Imagine being able to order food inside a game and having it show up at the door in real life. That will be a step up, not only in terms of creating an attractive customer experience, but also in increasing the amount of customer data that brands can leverage.

There is no question that this presents technology challenges, and logistical business challenges, like opening up ghost kitchens to serve metaverse orders that in theory could end up competing with a brand’s own physical locations and franchises. But brands need to figure out how to make this possible.

While the app remains the center of gravity for brands to engage digitally with customers, this might not always be the case. The metaverse is opening up a new world of opportunities for dining brands, especially when it comes to forging new paths to customer loyalty. Brands must act now, taking advantage of this moment of excitement around the metaverse while making sure they stake claim to their names and assets in the virtual world before anyone else does.

Jackie Walker is head of strategy, dining & delivery at digital consultancy Publicis Sapient.

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