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Strategies for Marketers: Helping the Food Industry Transform Through COVID-19

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Any food industry leader knows that success requires a generous helping of hard work, creativity, and consistency. Yet, as restaurants around the world feel the full weight of coronavirus-related slowdowns, every standard for success is changing. Processes need to be transformed and digital transformation needs to be accelerated because I think it’s safe to say that social distancing may impact the way we dine out for years to come.

Restaurants have responded to restrictions brought on by COVID-19 as best as they can, shifting to take-out-only and curbside pick-ups, and beefing up their cleaning and sanitizing efforts to keep customers safe. While these changes might be helping restaurants survive in the short-term, I suspect many in the industry are anxious for their businesses to get back to normal.

But will that ever happen?

I posit there is no “back to normal,” there is only the “new normal.” Based on what we know so far, the coronavirus, or some mutation of it, could be around for years. Customers will be slow to return — understandably wary of sitting elbow-to-elbow with strangers in a crowded dining room. That’s why now is the time for marketing teams working in the food industry to think about what the future holds and how they can help the sector adapt. Here are three predictions:

1) Doubling Down on Modern Channels.

The food industry relies on creating memorable experiences, through personal connections. Physical distancing doesn’t mean restaurants need to stop engaging with their customers. Social media and messaging channels – or “modern channels” – are key to creating a consistently strong communication and engagement strategy that goes beyond the in-house dining experience. That’s because listening to customers on modern channels can be a source of inspiration and innovation for restaurants.

For example, a few years ago, McDonald’s introduced their all-day breakfast after combing through thousands of customers’ digital conversations that supported the idea that people wanted breakfast after 10:30 am. This campaign was so effective that it helped reverse the company’s 14 quarters of decline, and a 10 percent improvement in positive customer sentiment was recorded.

Marketers that can tap into the digital conversation stream will find unparalleled customer insights that lead to new ideas and opportunities.

2) Shifting to Awareness and Community Building.

An analysis of online conversations shows that purchase intent on discretionary products has dropped in comparison to the same time last year, replaced with conversations around essential goods and entertainment. For marketers in the food industry, this means it’s more important than ever before to focus on the “long-game.” Rather than short-term promotions and sales, media KPIs should shift to a strong focus on brand awareness and community building. In an effort to think ahead, restaurants need to ensure that they’re able to target an interested audience when they do open their doors again.

3) Connecting Social Customer Care with Marketing.

Direct messaging from brands to consumers is now possible via Apple Business Chat, Twitter, and more, creating new ways for food services to establish one-to-one relationships with consumers. These interactions with customer service teams can provide an enormous wealth of data for digital marketers in the food industry to better understand what is important for customers.

By leaning on messaging channels to interact with consumers, restaurants will be able to gain insights to build targeted audiences and messaging, which will in turn lead to stronger relationships with customers.

Conclusion

The food industry is undoubtedly one of the hardest-hit sectors of the COVID-19 pandemic. However, despite the challenges, this can also be a moment to accelerate digital innovation across the industry. By leveraging modern channels to listen to what customers really want and cultivating meaningful relationships with them, restaurants can maintain, and even strengthen, customer engagement in this new environment. The question is whether marketers are willing to reinvent themselves to turn this challenge into an opportunity – or get left behind.

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