How Fast-Food Brands Can Build Emotional Loyalty Amid COVID-19

    Emotional loyalty goes deeper and lasts longer than traditional transactional programs.

    Starbucks loyalty card held by customer.
    Unsplash/Rebecca Aldama
    Starbucks’ industry-fronting Rewards platform, which attributed 48 percent of total U.S. corporate tender in the last week of May, grew to 19.4 million active users in Q2.

    The shifting realities of COVID-19 are acutely familiar to quick-service restaurants—it has taken a patchwork of new processes and procedures that had to be fast to market, just to keep these essential doors open and serving customers over the past several months.

    As customers juggle a combination of fear, excitement, uncertainty, readiness, confusion and stress, their heightened emotions are brought to every brand interaction—for better or for worse. However, it’s important not to lose sight of what customers were already asking for, even before COVID-19 upended lives: a more emotional connection to the brands they care about. The crisis is rightly raising questions about customer loyalty practices and strategies, but striving toward making a more authentic connection with customers remains a big opportunity for quick-serves.

    It is important to evolve loyalty programs to build emotional loyalty during this new reality which now means optimizing on new behaviors like curbside pickup and contactless payment. Emotional loyalty goes deeper and lasts longer than traditional transactional programs. And because creating personalized experiences requires data across all touchpoints, restaurants are in a unique position—with more customers using social media, to-go orders or curbside options, we’re creating new touchpoints every day–and an opportunity to collect data to interact with consumers in between the transaction.

    With this new data, brands can develop authentic loyalty experiences that are hyper-personalized to each customer’s needs and interests. It is more challenging to deliver convenience during COVID so incentives that can make a customer’s life just a little bit easier can create loyalty for a lifetime.

    The push for emotional loyalty in fast food

    Many quick-service restaurant loyalty programs are stuck in a loyalty 1.0 mindset—a points-for-reward approach that simply offers the customer a discount or tangible item in exchange for purchases. That won’t cut it as consumers come to expect loyalty programs that match their new realities and their expectations.

    If you’re examining your own loyalty strategy, take action on the following:

    Keep the customer and employee in focus. It has always been the responsibility of all restaurant leaders to keep their employees and customers safe—COVID-19 is a stark reminder of this. Once these critical elements are met, it’s time to make sure your loyalty efforts also provide what customers need right now. Quick-serves should look for new ways to build loyalty locally—donating food or services to a local effort for first responders or sponsoring a job fair can go a long way toward showing customers they are part of the community.

    Encourage and reinforce habits. Customers are interacting in a totally new way with quick-serves. Every day, more and more people are testing experiences like curbside pickup and online ordering, and they will remember how smoothly these services ran. Quick-service restaurants should find ways to inject loyalty opportunities within each of these new touchpoints. Have they identified an extremely busy period of curbside orders for hot coffee each day? These customers might be nurses and doctors, and could provide the inspiration for a new discount offered during their shift changes. This type of thinking can help reinforce habits and make customers feel good about coming back.

    Identify status early. With an influx of new customers looking to new dining options, operators should actively monitor for high-value opportunities. By identifying them early, they can maintain a strong relationship for life. This crisis is also an important reminder not to forget about existing high-value customers, who are just as frazzled and frustrated as everyone else.

    Ultimately, the success of a loyalty program hinges on a brand’s ability to meet the needs and expectations of customers. In quick service and other sectors, customers increasingly expect opportunities for emotional brand connections which is more challenging now as historical behavior isn’t relevant to current customer insight. By gathering and analyzing as much customer data as possible, restaurants can develop updated customer profiles and approaches that make it possible to build a stronger loyalty program that connects with customers emotionally and delivers better results now and over the long term.

    With over 25 years in strategic marketing, loyalty, and innovation roles as a client, vendor and consultant, Bobby Greenberg brings a well-rounded and creative perspective to Kobie and his clients. In his role, he focuses on advising clients on creating, enhancing, and transforming their customer loyalty strategies to maximize ROI and customer engagement.