There’s no easy way around this reality during COVID-19: It’s a strange time to be a restaurant marketer.

One of the core tenets of hospitality is, well, hospitality. And restaurants historically deliver this promise by greeting guests each day, even in a limited-service environment. Ove the last few years, however, there has been a push to translate this personality into the digital sphere. Social media accounts as recognizable as celebrities. One-to-one messaging over mass marketing. Personalized offers. Rewards platforms. Email clubs.

If anything, all of these channels have only gained prominence amid the pandemic’s stranglehold on day-to-day routines. The brands resonating with consumers are the ones able to stay connected. And, also, find some way to bring the in-restaurant experience into guests’ homes, at least to some feasible degree.

In late April, Zaxby’s uploaded a custom collection of ambient restaurant sounds to audio platform SoundCloud. The five-track playlist allows users to turn their homes into makeshift Zaxby’s restaurants. Or as CMO Joel Bulger put it, enable fans to “close their eyes and imagine they’re in our restaurants with their families and friends.”

The music dedicated tracks to lunch, dinner, late night, and sound. The fifth is purely ambient sounds, which allows listeners to create their own dialogue. In the others, you’ll hear things like orders being called out, the fizz of a Coca-Cola Freestyle Machine (pellet ice poured out included), and sauce packets ripped opened.

But this offbeat marketing move is hardly all Zaxby’s has been up to. It’s launched family packs of 20 chicken fingers or 30 boneless wings with sides for $24.99—a deal that feeds four people.

Bulger chatted with QSR about both initiatives, and how Zaxby’s marketing department has kept its many lines of communication flowing during the crisis.

Going back to the beginning, how did marketing play a role in Zaxby’s early COVID-19 response strategy?

After implementing health and safety precautions, we wanted to inform our guests about the steps we were taking to ensure their safety. We sent store signage to our restaurants and communicated updates as they were happening on our website and via social channels.

Tactically speaking, we added tags to all of our active media encouraging guests to visit our drive-thrus and use our contactless payment method—the order-ahead app. We also worked to remove advertising content featuring physical contact in support of the importance of social distancing.

Once those basic needs were met, we began thinking of how best to optimize the Zaxby’s experience in the drive-thru. Starting with product, we wanted to offer something for guests seeking fast, easy meals for their entire household at a great price.

We introduced Zax Family Packs starting at $24.99. We were able to use existing ingredients, packaging and even video footage, since shooting something new was not an option. In lieu of market testing, we brought some options to our licensees and asked for their input, knowing several had tried similar offerings in their local markets. We came to a quick consensus, not only on the product, but also the price. Zax Family Packs have been hugely successful for lots of reasons, but certainly speed to market was an important contributing factor. It was amazing to see how quickly an idea could come to life when the team was united behind a clear vision. 

Talk about the challenge of interacting with guests when they’re not coming into the dining room. What have been some effective ways to stay connected?

Keeping a constant flow of communication going via email, text, our app, website and social channels is one way we’ve tried to stay connected. Of those media, social is the best way for us to engage in two-way conversation. We’ve tried to use our social channels to share information, but also humor, joy, gratitude and compassion, and we think that sentiment has been well-received.

At the restaurants, we’ve seen some licensees put messages of gratitude in their windows. Some have added additional team members to their queue for extra human interaction but also to improve speed of service. Additionally, we’re getting out into the community and donating meals with handwritten messages to medical workers and first responders. So far, local Zaxby’s owners have donated over 20,000 boxed meals to over 80 hospitals in six markets.

Elaborate on social media specifically. Many brands have turned to the channel to offer an authentic message, and also because it’s more cost-effective as budgets tighten. How has Zaxby’s curated its voice throughout the pandemic?

At Zaxby’s we try to keep it real. Yes, things are tough right now, but also—we’re all in this together and we’ve got this. We want to use our social platforms to share important updates, but also to spread joy, generosity, comfort and humor. People are craving those things right now just about as much as hand-breaded chicken.

It varies by channel, but on Instagram we’ve used stories to connect not only our brand with the fans, but the fans with each other. It’s also a nice medium to encourage our frontline workers. Fans post messages of gratitude about their local Zaxby’s employees, and we gladly repost and add our thanks. We’ve also hopped onto popular social memes—BINGO for example—to do our part in keeping folks entertained while they’re stuck at home. Additionally, we’ve ramped up our presence on TikTok where quirky, fun short-form videos are particularly popular.

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With the SoundCloud playlist, walk us through the inspiration. What was the goal of the launch and how did it come about?

We’ve been following and participating in conversations about longing for “normal life.” We see people trying desperately to bring their favorite “real life” experiences into the digital world, yet dining out is such a sensory experience. Taste, smell, touch—those can all be delivered with takeout. We wanted to add to the experience by delivering sound. The brainstorm for this idea was a blast—thinking about sitting in a Zaxby’s dining room overhearing conversations, anxiously waiting for your number to be called, just the energy of being in a room full of people. Working with our creative partners at Tombras, everything fell into place quickly after that—the album name “Sounds from Table 23,” the tracks named for times of the day, and even the iconic album art.

What has the response been like?

The response has been exactly as we had hoped. It takes a second for people to get it. What is this? Then they recognize the familiar sounds, and if you’re a big fan, it feels like home. The media response has been great. Several local morning radio and TV shows have gotten a kick out of it. If it made someone laugh and feel just a bit more connected to the Zaxby’s experience—mission accomplished.

More broadly, how has Zaxby’s responded to COVID-19, from employees to franchisees to operations?

We’ve stayed in extremely close contact—while at a distance, of course—throughout this entire time. Internally, we’ve eliminated silos and have really gotten back to our entrepreneurial roots, working closely with Zaxby’s dedicated, boots-on-the-ground licensees. Together we’re communicating more than ever before with team members and guests.

In terms of post-COVID-19, what do you think restaurant marketing will look like? What’s going to be the message everybody’s trying to convey?

The health and safety of our employees and guests will continue to be first and foremost. The restaurant industry is known for service and generosity. We’ve seen a lot of that, and I’m sure that will continue. I also expect we as an industry will continue focusing on comfort foods, healthful foods and value items while our hearts and bank accounts recover. 

How critical will it be just to remind customers you’re open again when dining rooms start to come back? Are there some effective ways you think restaurants can do this?

From a marketing standpoint, we’ll continue to do our best to inform guests of steps Zaxby’s is taking to ensure their safety, while making them aware of all the ways they can dine with us—drive-thru, order ahead, curbside or delivery (where available)—so they can choose what they feel is best. As we prepare to open dining rooms, we’ll do so thoughtfully and with an abundance of caution. We’re looking forward to serving guests in whatever way they feel most comfortable.

Overall, how do you think the industry will change on the other side? What are some of the biggest shifts taking place today that will linger well beyond the crisis?

Keeping employees and guests safe will be the new mantra in hospitality. I would expect the best practices that have been implemented over the last six weeks will remain in place for the foreseeable future. At Zaxby’s, we’re working across operational and internal channels to constantly refine our processes to adapt to changing requirements.

Fast Food, Marketing & Promotions, Restaurant Operations, Story, Zaxby's