Change is everywhere. There are a lot of unknowns as we navigate the complexities of the current environment. Restaurants are struggling to understand whether the economic, health and societal impact of COVID-19 is short-lived or something that will forever change their way of doing business. Either way, brands need to prepare and communicate; transparency and clear, honest communication are desired traits that build brand loyalty beyond crisis scenarios. There are a range of choices for brands to take: adjust messaging, adjust location or audience-based targeting, develop more comprehensive negative keyword lists among some of the more common adjustments we’re seeing. But no matter the path forward, here are some tips to help your brand succeed in a confusing time.

Take a deep breath: Focus

Though some restaurants are not able to pivot as easily as others, it’s important to take a step back and evaluate the current and potential impact of COVID-19 to your brand, its many locations and your customers. How does the current environment influence their customer journey and the makeup of their user persona? What short and medium term operational modifications can be made to your programs to address this new customer profile? The sooner your brand can adjust your current offering to accommodate changes in your customers’ consumption behavior, the sooner this relationship will become more stable and comfortable again, to both parties. Change is not forever … or maybe it is, and you need to adapt.

Establish a plan that outlines your company’s procedures and adjustments: Accurately communicate that plan to the communities you serve

Your employees are your most important asset. Keep your employees happy … keep your customers happy. Be transparent and forthcoming. Manage expectations and provide options. Is there a possibility for a short term audible? Are services and roles able to be slightly modified while still aligning with customer needs and local regulation? Whatever decision is made, make sure each community you serve knows how it affects them. Some locations may expand their delivery radius and some locations may allow for pickup. Whatever is decided, it’s paramount that you ensure each community receives information that is specific to them. 

Communicate with your location owners/operators: These are new boundaries for EVERYONE

As each community is affected differently, the continual analysis of feedback from your local operators and of local marketing campaign performance has the ability to help brands reveal the true needs of their customers during a time that has no past playbook. What works for big city locations will not work for small cities or rural areas. Each community must be evaluated individually. Each location’s needs must be identified and addressed. 

Don’t just speak to the owners and operators of the biggest markets. Their operational updates and community marketing needs will be noticeably different than those of more rural locations. Unfortunately, due to disparity in population size, smaller voices are often not heard or even able to be accounted for though they are numerous. Those same large-market operations may often not feel the same pressure or financial stress that smaller markets do during times like we are currently experiencing. No location can be left behind.

Hold weekly group calls. Help each of your locations understand exactly what impacts them the most. Better yet, gather field information. Oftentimes, needs and regulation differ greatly community by community, and strengthening communication and those relationships within your brand drive progress.

Communicate with your customers: We’re in the same headspace

Even with the best plan in place, if your customer isn’t aware of it, it won’t work. Be where your customers are. Speak to each community directly: “This is our plan for your specific community because we understand and care about you.”

It’s important not to miss the mark here though, and risk being perceived as patronizing. This may not be the best time to roll out a new offer. It is more important to remain present, capitalize on potential diminished competitor presence and a heightened appetite for local-specific news and increase brand awareness and favorability within your community. Your customers are living on this planet, and it’s important to show you are in the same headspace.

Be socially aware: NO “viral deals”

Following on customer communication and remaining level with your customer’s new reality, is social awareness. This is not the time for “doorbuster deals,” or to roll out a new special encouraging folks to bring their families in. Maybe you don’t even want to use that creative of two people shaking hands.

Evaluate every piece of creative both you and your franchisees may be running. Take tone, wording and visuals into consideration and tread carefully for which content you are putting out into the world, and implement a process for your locations’ marketing strategies. The last thing you want is for a rogue location running their own creative mentioning “viral deals” and appearing tone deaf for the brand overall.

Can your brand help?- Make a positive impact on someone else

Adjust the focus from yourself as a business owner. Oftentimes we focus so intently on solving our own business problems that we don’t see opportunity to help others. What may be a monumental task for some could be simple for others. Whether it is your employees, your location operators or your community, acts outside of your own brand can have a lasting impact.

This is hard.

Your time is stretched, your brain is fried, your kids are loud and you’re going stir crazy. Take a mental break and think about which superpowers you or your brand might have that could benefit someone else.

Plan for recovery: Prepare to hunker down

We are still in a time of unknown. What makes this especially difficult is that the decisions made today will have a substantial impact on the survival of your business and how it operates tomorrow.

There’s no time like the present to evaluate and review what offerings and procedures are in place from the past and make hard decisions about whether they remain the way of the future.

Learn everyday: Change will come fast

Which message did communities respond best to?

Which locations were seeing best delivery before, and what is the new normal?

Which location is showing the most loyal customer base?

What is the best service modification?

What operational cost changes need to occur or are succeeding?

And most important of all, think about why these answers are the way they are.

Be patient: Keep a steady course

The new normal will become just that, normal (at least for now). Folks need to eat, get haircuts, and file taxes (July 15). Even if COVID-19 is reality for longer than we’d like, other topics of discussion will return. If you’re calm, calculated and clearly communicate your success plan to everyone involved, you’ll make it through.

Wash your hands

A lot. Seems obvious but this is a must. Wash those hands!

Patrick Pleiss is co-founder and Head of Operations at Hyperlocology, a platform for franchise marketers who need to do more with less to support 100’s or 1000’s of brand locations with community based digital marketing. Winner “Best use of Programmatic” Drum Awards 2019

Outside Insights, Restaurant Operations, Story