Fast food marketers have increasingly looked to digital to boost consumer engagement and loyalty throughout the year. But in digital, consumers have become a squirrely bunch, making it tough for fast food marketers to pin down the right balance between entertaining branded experiences across various platforms and relevant information and offers that will drive in-store traffic and customer loyalty. While unique one-off initiatives such as these social practices create interesting ways to connect with brands, to some extent they have become formulaic—competitive logos can be easily swapped in the content and consumers would not be able tell the difference. 

To become a more remarkable brand over time, digital fast food marketers need to exercise more patience in developing integrated creative and media strategies that clearly tie into longer-term business goals. By leveraging or even resurrecting a brand’s assets, rewarding consumers with more organic ways to engage, and consistently dissecting business outcomes to optimize investments, they significantly improve their ability to touch consumers at a much deeper level and keep them coming back.

Find Your Brand Chi

Consumers have become exceedingly savvy at detecting—and now blocking—inauthentic brand experiences. An inappropriate tweet or video that misses the mark can drive them away in seconds; or worse, compel them to admonish the brand among peers in their own social media channels. In an era where 68 percent of 18-to 34- year olds report that their peers’ posts heavily influence purchase decisions, public shaming on social networks can lead to damaging consequences.

To attract, engage and maintain loyal followers in the long term, food marketers must first deeply understand their brand’s core assets (and lack thereof)—key differentiators that define the brand’s reason for being. For example, Panera’s assets are superior ingredients and preparation, a warm environment, a healthier kids menu and a variety of choices.

In stark contrast, Arby’s understands and are very clear about who they are: a place to eat a giant pile of meat—bacon, roast beef and angus steak—maybe even smothered in a mound of cheddar cheese. But for years Arby’s had seriously struggled with identity crisis in the face of external pressures around healthier eating. As a result, they were losing up to $150,000 in sales per restaurant over a four-year period—catastrophic performance for a brand of their size. But soon, Arby’s newly appointed brand president and chief marketing officer Rob Lynch scrapped the chain’s contrived “Slicing Up Freshness” tag at the time for an emboldened new message, “We Have the Meats.” Through a series of brilliant, sometimes self-deprecating executions that unapologetically embraced who they were—like this farewell montage on Jon Stewart and timely Pharell Williams tweet during the Grammy’s—Lynch quickly turned Arby’s into a hip brand willing to take chances and lead consumers on an unpredictable, but fun and refreshingly authentic ride. As a result, their team boosted sales and grew the chain’s 35 and under clientele to 50 percent from 35 percent within two years.

Arby’s turnaround shows that by shedding consumers’ pre-conceived notions and sticking to a brand’s core assets, food marketers can establish the solid foundation required to expand and grow new relationships.

You Got Their Attention—Now What?

According to the latest Smart Flour Foods study, 80 million millennials are entering the U.S. pizza market, and found that 54 percent of them have taken a photo of their pizza and posted it online. These trends suggest major opportunities for pizza operators to engage new customers. But they also present major challenges other food marketers face today: millennials rely heavily on their smartphones and have the least established brand loyalty of any generation. Luckily, once millennials feel a connection, the study found they remain hugely loyal to the brand and restaurant.

To establish brand loyalty, food marketers must extend the digital experience beyond tweets and Facebook posts and reward consumers’ engagement with other creative ways to connect with the brand. For example, what if every time a millennial takes a pizza pic, Domino’s adds in an exclusive offer for a future purchase or incentive for customers to rate their experience on Yelp? Or a geo-targeted text promo to motivate someone to try Domino’s carryout? The combination of great strategy and advanced data-driven mobile technology is a powerful combination to drive loyalty. 

Drill Down and Reinvest

Digital measurement capabilities have exploded well beyond impressions and clicks, and it’s incumbent upon fast food marketers, agencies and technology partners to stay on the bleeding edge of engagement and conversion insights. While it’s impressive to see Chipotle reach 6.5 million YouTube views for its award-winning Scarecrow film, digital marketers need to dig into deeper display, email, social and mobile metrics to surface non-traditional pockets of opportunity. For example, Jude O’Connor, Opera’s vice president of brand performance commented on a mobile marketing report:

“These top [quick-service] brands are looking to do much more than drive app installs at their targeted CPI rate. They’re measuring post install engagements such as registrations and coupon downloads, with an ultimate goal of driving foot traffic to their brick-and-mortar locations. By tracking those post-install events, we’ve been able to create audience profiles of their common customers, optimize to that audience and others who match their patterns of behaviors, and play a large role in them redeeming coupons within store—thus directly boosting the brand’s sales and revenue.”

By seeking more granular insights like these, fast food marketers will strengthen their ability to make better investments in future digital programs.

Like Chinese food, fun and entertaining digital ads can temporarily satisfy consumers, but won’t improve the health of the brand over the long term. If fast food marketers patiently and unwaveringly stick to their brand’s platform and consistently deliver inventive, timely data-driven ideas, exciting new and profitable relationships will build with consumers over time.

Sean Looney has more than 25 years of agency experience, beginning his career at major global agencies such as Bozell Worldwide and Euro RSCG MVBMS Partners. Prior to co-founding his agency, Sean served as the Creative Director at EuroRSCG and worked with dozens of major limited-service restaurant brands on integrated offline and online campaigns for years. His work has been featured in The New York Times, Ad Age, Adweek, Art Direction, Archive, Art Director’s Club, Creativity, Shoot, U.S. Ad Review, The Museum of Modern Art, and 60 Minutes.
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