From product innovation to splashy brand plays, quick-service restaurants are always looking for out-of-the-box ways to attract and retain diners. 

We’ve all counted down the days until pumpkin spice lattes return, waited in the hour-long drive thru line for the return of beloved staples like McRibs or entered sweepstakes like Starbucks for Life. However, product innovation and stunty campaigns are not enough for driving loyalty on their own.

Amid intense competition and consumers’ shift to value, the biggest challenge for quick-service restaurants is creating a balanced marketing approach that drives loyalty.

Marketers must go beyond the splash and ensure they’re reaching the right customers to achieve intended results. Here are three strategies for inspiring not only interest, but action:

1. Becoming the First of the Season to Beat the Competition

It’s no secret that seasonal favorites capture the attention of diners. Shamrock shakes and pumpkin spice lattes are just two examples that have become beloved phenomena.

When it comes to these tentpole moments, insights into past performance are essential for optimizing your product portfolio and strategizing effective marketing efforts. 

If you were late to pumpkin spice season last year and data shows that you lost a chunk of foot traffic until your fall favorites hit the menu, plan to drop those desired products earlier or launch a limited time promotion to stand out among the competition. Evaluate your standard seasonal offerings, using it as an opportunity to replace lower-performing products enticing new customers and frequent visitors.

One downside to highly awaited seasonal moments is they’re incredibly saturated. For brands who can’t break through the clutter, consider other moments where your brand is the clear star. Cinnabon successfully accomplished this in October by creating a week-long BOGO deal to celebrate National Cinnamon Roll Day. In fact, according to an InMarket study, Cinnabon was among the top Coffee & Snack chains in terms of productivity in Q4. Sprinkling a little star power mixed with value also doesn’t hurt when it comes to owning a holiday season, take McDonald’s promotional push with Mariah Carey as an example. 

Lean into unique insights and optimize seasonal activations to re-market to interested consumers and see stronger results. 

2. Transforming Splashy Stunts into Unforgettable Moments

From Pizza Hut’s “Goodbye Pies,” to McDonald’s celebrating Grimace’s birthday, to the debut of the DunKings, quick-serves heavily invest in viral ideas. However, generating buzz is just one piece of the pie. 

In order to see intended ROI, brands must build on these campaigns, incorporating both top- and bottom-of-the-funnel tactics. 

Take the viral power of Miss Peaches, for example, who gained over a million followers in less than a month and raised over $300,000 for charity with merchandise sales after being adopted from a shelter. Channel this viral energy and consider creative campaigns like launching a Peach-flavored slushy, milkshake or iced tea and donating part of the proceeds to local animal charities to engage younger, socially driven demographics like Gen Z who are enamored with Miss Peaches’ story. Further build on this promotion and turn it into a bigger brand moment by creating a companion interactive mobile ad experience, highlighting the mission-driven offering to incentivize diner engagement and frequency. 

Tapping both top- and bottom-of-the-funnel tactics to promote viral campaigns ensures you consistently reach your audience throughout the customer journey, keeping your brand top of mind. Not only have these combined efforts proven to increase awareness, sales and loyalty, they also provide better visibility into campaign performance by offering opportunities for inflight measurement.

3. Investing in the Right Technology to Drive Optimization & Efficiency

Chains are constantly announcing technological innovations focused on enhancing convenience. In order to get customers to experience AI-powered drive-thrus or self-ordering kiosks, you first need to capture their attention and get them on-premises. 

While marketers might feel pressured to jump on the bandwagon of the hottest tech, prioritize what empowers deep understandings of your target audience. Start with solutions that provide holistic looks at performance, particularly what works, what doesn’t and who your loyal customer is. 

Conduct a lapsed/lost analysis and find moments where you’re seeing the biggest lulls in foot traffic and sales. From there, you can create a “National Day” event offering an alluring deal to re-engage customers like Cinnabon’s successful National Cinnamon Roll Day promotion.

Whether it’s revamping your loyalty program, enhancing in-house omnichannel offerings or securing new measurement partnerships, double down on investments that deliver meticulous insights and understandings of diners’ behaviors, namely when and where they’re making purchase decisions alongside their ‘why,’ which are essential for building targeted audiences and reaching the right diners at the right time.

Marketers listed measurement as the top 2024 investment priority because they need to get the most out of their dollar. The most efficient way to do that is investing in tech that provides a thorough analysis of campaign success and enables real-time optimization to prevent precious ad dollars from being wasted.

An uncertain economy, unpredictable consumer behaviors and increased competition are a puzzling combination for quick-service restaurant marketers. As it becomes harder to predict the future, lean into the data and prioritize tools and tactics that give you the insights needed to drive success.

Alicia DiStefano is InMarket’s VP, Practice Leader for the QSR and Dining verticals. Alicia has worked in media and advertising for over 15 years, with experience in location marketing, data as a service (DaaS), programmatic, and self-service media. She previously worked in the restaurant vertical for 10 years, and has shared conference stages with brands like Panera, Subway, KFC, McDonald’s, DoorDash, and more. In 2018, Alicia oversaw the team, campaign, and submission to win the I-COM Data Creativity Award for a cost per visit campaign for Outback Steakhouse. Alicia is based in Atlanta.

Fast Casual, Fast Food, Marketing & Promotions, Outside Insights, Story