As of 2015, Americans spend more money in restaurants and bars than in grocery stores, while the percentage of dinners cooked at home have dropped by more than 15 percent over the last 30 years. In the U.K., the average adult now sinks five hours each week into consuming food-related media. That’s more than the four hours spent on cooking meals.

So the rise of food delivery services like UberEATS, Deliveroo, and Foodora was inevitable. With the huge range of options available to consumers, actual “cooking” may one day stand as a practice from a simpler, slower, and hungrier era.

Quick-service restaurants in particular live to serve. They have always been at the forefront of on-demand culture, but the separation of their food from their physical locations will have, and is having, implications for their brands.

Strong quick-service brands get a lot of brand equity and long-term associations from their physical environments. We as marketers talk a lot about defining abstract, nuanced brand “values” and “purpose”—but nowhere is a quick-service brand’s identity better reflected than in its restaurants. They are the physical embodiment of a brand and play a larger role than just providing surfaces to eat on. How? By setting the scene and the emotional context for the meal to come.

When you strip a meal from its restaurant, you place much of the weight of experience on the food, ordering, and delivery process. And no matter how satisfying or efficient those processes are, they are detached from an immediately brand-bolstering context. This erodes decades of associations. And so it’s crucial that brands seek ways to convey their restaurant experience to external settings.

Case in point: Domino’s. At the core of its strategy is the idea that they’re not just in the pizza-making business, but in the pizza-delivering business. Their product is a staple of “traditional” delivery food. It cannot lean on its restaurant environment for brand building. So when the company revamped its faltering brand and once substandard pizza in 2010, their delivery service followed suit. Aside from much-improved product and updated packaging, the company took four years to develop a specialized delivery car, complete with an oven, logo-projecting light and a … very Domino’s design.

Their efforts did not go unrewarded. In a span of five years, the brand went from the punch line of a bad joke to being the second-largest pizza chain in the world. It’s a bold strategy, but one that reflects the necessity of investing time and resources into effectively translating branded environments to much less predictable spaces. It’s easy to lose sight of branding, given the logistical mastery required to deliver food at profit. But finding a new expression of the core brand is critical for long-term success.

Obviously, not every brand has the luxury of being able to produce showy marketing stunts like Domino’s. It’s within this new era of third party delivery that less grandiose strokes of creativity must come into play. So it’s food packaging that may well need to pull an inordinate amount of weight in helping restaurants reconnect with their customers. This can be done by adding practical value, in the sense that Natural Delivery’s sustainable packaging folds out to a plate and placemat, or how pasta chain Vapiano’s slick, sturdy takeaway containers can be used time and time again as storage. The red containers and shape even parallel the store’s memorable interiors.

But food packaging isn’t just a place to keep leftovers, and it’s not as constraining a creative canvas as it might initially seem. Even more impressive (and attention grabbing) is Pizza Hut’s “blockbuster pizza box,” which doubles as a movie projector. It’s a piece of work hinting at the untapped possibilities of a seemingly limiting branding format, and one that looks beyond the hygiene factor of aesthetically appealing design.

Elsewhere, McDonald’s has recently collaborated with UberEATS on a giveaway of a range of kitschy, brand-themed clothing (this Big Mac-riddled onesie is particularly glorious), while Burger King and KFC have opted for decidedly unorthodox, even bizarre routes to claiming consumer attention and consideration. It is precisely that openness to experimentation beyond the tried-and-true that is necessary to compensate for the growing disconnect consumers may begin to have with physical quick-service environments.

Physical context and experience informs our experiences and shapes perception in ways that are magnitudes stronger than marketing effects. We will continue to assess the things we taste, like and see through the lens of our immediate sense perceptions. And when locational context is lost, brands that relied on it will need to find new ways to build other strong associations in the minds of their customers.

Alistair Beattie joined DDB & Tribal Worldwide, Amsterdam as CO-CEO in July 2016. As a long-time strategist he brings to the agency more than 20 years of global brand and marketing experience, all built on deep digital foundations. In his previous position as Head of Strategy for DDB in EMEA, Alistair was responsible for developing brand and communication strategy for regional and global clients such as McDonalds, Heineken, Adidas, Unilever and Volkswagen. Before working in advertising Alistair was a creative partner at Me Company in London—a boutique design company famous for their work for Björk as well as many other music industry client.
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