The landscape of restaurant marketing has experienced seismic turns in recent years. The advent of digital channels and the migration of guest behavior has led brands into nontraditional avenues as they look to meet customers on their own terms. Whether it’s digital ordering, delivery, AI, or influencer marketing, operators have a new set of rules to navigate and opportunities to leverage.

QSR caught up with Jericho Lopez, director of digital marketing and public relations at QDOBA, to hear her thoughts on what’s ahead, the overarching impact of today’s disruptions, and what restaurants can learn from how the guest has begun to interact with the brands they frequent.

What innovative changes are happening in the quick-service space? What changes made are going to remain permanent moving forward?

The quick-service restaurant industry is constantly evolving, and several innovative changes have been taking place in recent years. While it’s difficult to predict with certainty which changes will remain permanent, here are some trends and innovations that I believe are prominent in the restaurant space and have the potential to shape the industry’s future:

Digital Ordering and Delivery: We have witnessed a surge in the adoption of mobile apps and online ordering platforms. Offering customers convenience and flexibility in ordering and delivery options will remain popular and will likely be a permanent and integral part of the service and experience of successful brands.

Contactless Payments: Contactless payments, such as mobile wallets and QR Codes, have become vital tools for customers. These options enhance ease, speed, and safety in transactions and are expected to remain a permanent fixture. They are now the expectation of our guests and are paramount to delivering exceptional service.

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Automation and AI: Automation and AI have found their place in operations through self-order kiosks and AI-driven recommendations. There is a deep value for both customers and brands in terms of efficiency and an enhanced customer experience, making them likely to be leveraged for years to come.

Customization and Personalization: Brands are increasingly offering customizable menu options and catering to individual preferences and dietary needs. I believe this trend will remain a cornerstone of the dining approach as customers seek more personalized dining experiences.

Menu Innovations: Brands should be passionate about experimenting with new menu items and flavors to drive trial and engage current customers. Limited-time offerings and seasonal menus are deeply rooted and expected to remain part of the quick-service restaurant marketing strategies. They give our fans something to look forward to!

Loyalty: This is such an interesting and fluid space. Many brands have introduced loyalty and rewards programs to attract and retain customers. Investment in these programs is likely to continue so that guests feel valued and appreciated.

Influencer Marketing: At its core, this is simply word-of-mouth marketing from a trusted source. From the early days as a blogger to the current state of micro- and nano-influencers, I see this as a marketing practice here to stay. That said, I suspect it will continue to be fluid in how it shows up, how brands and influencers navigate consumer fatigue and saturation as well as potential regulations.  But one thing is for sure, there is a real opportunity to grow brand awareness on a global scale through this method.

Data Analytics: As the Director of Digital Marketing, data-driven decision-making should be at the core of any marketing strategy. If they are not already doing this, brands will dive deeper into harnessing customer data to tailor offerings and marketing efforts, ensuring that you remain relevant and responsive to consumer needs. The key here will be unifying the data for ease of understanding and use across all of the data touchpoints.

The quick-service/fast-casual space is highly competitive and adaptable. While these trends are currently prevalent, the industry will continue to evolve, and innovations may emerge. The permanence of these changes will depend on factors like consumer preferences, technological advancements, and economic conditions. Quick-service chains that can effectively adapt to these evolving trends will likely thrive in the future.

Are there other industries or companies outside of this industry that you have looked to for inspiration and why?

Absolutely. In my role, I have found inspiration across many industries. I like to understand their successful frameworks and try to apply the foundations and theories in my work. I look at tech giants like Apple and Google, who excel at creating seamless and user-friendly digital experiences. I look at retail innovators like Amazon whose customer-centric approach and emphasis on personalization is extremely influential for not only brands but the defining expectation of the consumer. I look at streaming services like Netflix who is known for data-driven content recommendations and draw inspiration from their use of data analytics. And of course, start-ups in the food-tech space like third-party aggregators have nailed automation and delivery. Customer-centric brands like Airbnb prioritize the customer experience. Learning from them we can aim to create memorable interactions both online and in-restaurant. While we are a part of the quick-service/fast-casual industry, it is important to look beyond our sector for inspiration and fresh ideas.

How have the last few years + virtual methods impacted the industry?

I think I answered this a bit in the previous questions but to reiterate, the last few years have brought about a digital revolution in the industry. The adoption of digital ordering and delivery has skyrocketed. The demand and expectation of consumers for ease and personalization are at an all-time high—meaning we need to focus on areas like contactless payments, menu innovation, automation, and AI-driven recommendations, and bridging the virtual and in-restaurant experiences for a more seamless and enjoyable engagement. While the industry has faced challenges, it also presented opportunities for innovation and growth. The brands that can commit to staying at the forefront of these developments will see success.

What marketing lessons can other industries learn from the quick-service restaurant space?

There are certainly valuable marketing lessons that other industries can learn from the restaurant industry. Things like adaptability, resilience, customer-centricity, embracing fluidity and willingness to innovate with the digital transformation, and utilizing data to optimize messages, audiences, and product recommendations. Other industries can learn from our social media engagement and how to build a consistent brand and grow global brand awareness. In a day-to-day business, the ability to reconfigure strategies around technology, marketing, operations, and staffing is critical to long-term success.

On a personal note, what I find most inspiring about the restaurant industry is our unwavering commitment to hospitality and fostering connections. It’s a privilege that sets us apart, allowing us to play a distinctive role in nurturing relationships and enriching lifestyles. We have a unique role in people’s lives, serving as a bridge that connects them to their cultural heritage, family, and friends. Despite the digital transformation of our industry, we continue to bring people together, enhance their experiences, and create lasting memories. This is what fuels my passion for the restaurant industry—our ability to enrich lives through meaningful human connections.

Consumer Trends, Fast Casual, Fast Food, Marketing & Promotions, Restaurant Operations, Story, Technology, Qdoba