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McDonald's Coronavirus Homebase

A new, new normal: brands need to be thoughtful about their reopening ad strategy

By Jennifer Faull

May 21, 2020 | 8 min read

Retailers and restaurants are taking tentative steps to kickstart trading again as lockdown rules loosen around the globe. However, brands would do well to remember that cautious customers will be watching closely to see how they communicate that they’re back in business.

mcdonalds eating chips in the street

McDonald’s gained a huge amount of positive interest by promoting a new in-store model to help keep employees and customers safe

Home improvement stores like B&Q and Homebase were among the first major retailers to take steps to re-open in the UK early in May following on from their ‘essential’ classification from the government.

Eager to reach customers who are using their free time in lockdown to get familiar with their toolbox or green-fingered in their garden, these DIY brands have been investing in content marketing via email and social media to encourage customers to visit their local branch. Both Homebase and B&Q have stressed the importance of in-store mandatory social distancing measures to keep employees and customers safe in their communications.

According to research from reputation intelligence firm Alva, this is a strategy that’s paying off in terms of brand perception. Its data shows that 81% of people felt positive about the approach the pair had taken, while 18% were ‘neutral’. Just 1% felt negative towards the brands.

Homebase and B&Q were seen [by consumers] to be operating a ‘safety first’ approach by remaining largely closed, despite having been designated as an essential service,” explains Alberto Lopez Valenzuela, Alva’s founder and chief executive.

“When they did reopen, it was handled tentatively, with a small number of stores initially, followed by a full roll-out once this had been deemed a success. Statements from the firms prioritised employee and customer safety and enumerated a long list of additional precautions taken to ensure this.”

It's a different story, however, for high street fast-food chains such as Gregg’s and airlines, like Southwest.

“After a widely-reported reopening, UK chain Greggs announced it was reversing its decision to reopen, citing the risk of excessive customer turnout,” says Valenzuela. This show of indecisiveness, combined with a lack of full consideration for the potential impact of its actions on customer and colleague health, damaged the chain’s reputation.

Though 70% of people reported a “neutral” sentiment towards the chain, a whopping 14% felt strongly negative about the sausage roll seller’s coronavirus action plan.

Likewise, after Southwest Airlines chief executive Gary Kelly declared that it was now safe to fly and he would be taking steps to reopen bookings, he was seen to be “out of step with the public mood and the pronouncements of health experts and putting his firm’s financial interests ahead of public and employee safety,” says Valenzuela. This had an impact on the business’ reputation with 37% of respondents to Alva’s survey now viewing the brand negatively.

Thoughtful reopening

With marketing budgets growing at their slowest rate since the 2008/9 financial crisis and brands unable to uphold typical production standards, customers around the globe have been subject to remotely-produced Zoom call-style TV ads or digital slots since mid-March.

Now though, for many brands – not just retailers – the focus is shifting to striking the right tone as the world starts to slowly reopen and adjust to a new, new normal. Among them is Lexus, which debuted TV ads in the US last week that asked viewers the question of where their first trip outdoors would be to when lockdown eased.

“As the focus shifts to thoughtful reopening, our new campaign is the first phase of welcoming guests back to dealerships online and in-person, whenever they are ready,” Lisa Materazzo, vice president of marketing for Lexus says.

“We understand that guests have been quarantining at home, and we wanted to create an inspiring and optimistic campaign inviting customers to imagine new journeys they will take – whether that's now or sometime in the future.”

Also trying to strike the balance between advertising they're back in business and assuring customers it’s safe to visit are fast-food chains such as McDonald’s, KFC and Burger King; the former has already faced overwhelming demand since tentatively opening a few outlets in the UK for delivery and takeaway.

McDonald’s is to open several UK drive-thrus imminently and has issued several emails to customers from the chief executive Chris Kempczinski explaining how it will do so safely. The result is that many people (89%) have no real feeling at all on the brand’s decision while 11% are positive. Crucially, though, 0% of people have negative sentiment towards the golden arches.

“McDonald’s gained a huge amount of positive interest by promoting a new in-store model to help keep employees and customers safe. This has not only included the use of social distancing decals on the floor and thermometers to monitor for fever, but also the possibility of full table service, with food being delivered by trolley,” says Valenzuela.

“This appears to be the model for great reopening announcements: doubling down on colleague and customer safety measures and including an element of innovation to help differentiate but also to reinforce the ‘safety at all costs’ message.”

Conversely, KFC – which closed all restaurants on 23 March – is preparing for its return to business with a full blown ad campaign from ad agency Mother.

Having pulled an unfortunately-timed ad back in March that celebrated the chicken shop’s ‘finger’ lickin’ good’ philosophy, the new work champions its fans’ attempts at making fried chicken at home and reassures viewers that “we’ll take it from here.“

The brand has been piloting safety protocols in a handful of restaurants, such as fewer staff serving a more limited menu, before it opens widely. But, as Valenzuela stresses, if it’s to succeed in reassuring customers and proving that it’s not putting profit before public health then it will need to communicate these measures clearly, effectively and in a timely manner.

Quite simply, the earlier announcements ran counter to the strong narrative of lockdown and self-isolation prevalent across the media at that time. The reopenings, however partial and well-intended, caught the public cold as question marks remained over the wisdom and appropriateness of the timing,” he says.

“It is clear that business actions around reopenings will remain at the top the most impactful announcements for the coming weeks, if not months. And for every successful announcement there will be another that didn’t quite hit the mark, given the incredibly complex and sensitive nature of this issue today.”

Additional reporting by Rebecca Stewart

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