By Thomas O'Neill | Managing editor

January 22, 2021 | 9 min read

Fast food marketers tell us how they’ve been serving up fast fixes since the restaurant industry was flipped on its head.

When the restaurant industry was setting the table for 2020, an all-out feast was on the menu, an expanding economy and increasingly positive consumer sentiment whetting its appetite.

In the US, where restaurant sales had hit $833bn in 2019, the National Restaurant Association was predicting more generous helpings, its State of the Restaurant Industry report in February putting that number at $866bn for 2020 and its Restaurant Industry 2030 Report having it climb to $1.2tn by the end of the decade.

Nominations for this year’s Future 50 are currently open. If you’d like to nominate yourself, or a colleague, for our list of the best rising stars and emerging marketers in the world, follow this link.

Off-premises sales, it concluded, would be a driver of this growth, despite at the time making up a relatively small part of the overall offering. Its toughest challenge, meanwhile, would be a shrinking talent pool and competition for good labor.

Mere months later and a lot of that good labor were losing their jobs as restaurant after restaurant shut. Those sales numbers, meanwhile, will take a long time to right themselves. The off-premises predictions, however, proved more than prescient as the entire industry was turned on its head.

Joe Farrar was working at Pizza Hut at the time and says it was “wild” becoming a takeout-only business overnight. The brand manager says things he’d previously taken for granted, “like knowing what details to print on POS or even how the menu would look”, went out the window.

“We were just constantly having to adjust to these endless changes to how and when we could operate, which just made everything so much harder. I thought before that we worked to pretty tight deadlines, but it’s even harder when you don’t know when those deadlines are coming!”

Hundreds of the pizza restaurant’s iconic red-roofed huts now look set to close in the US, as do dozens more in the UK as the brand’s proposition pivots to its delivery and take-out operations.

But even with such attempts at future-proofing, the marketing team still needed to be more agile than ever. “I really took for granted the processes we had in place to go from a brief to delivering a project. But in a world where details, deadlines and even the legality of your industry is in flux, it’s been a real game changer.”

At McDonald’s head office in London, meanwhile, the marketing team had just trialled a day of working from home when they were told not to return for six months. Liz Whitbread, who was brand manager at the time, says: “We started to adapt our ordering channels, operations and our comms to reflect the quickly changing situation, but before we knew it all our restaurants had shut their doors for the first time in history. This was huge – for our customers, crew, franchisees, suppliers, office staff. I don’t think anyone would have guessed that the entire McDonald’s estate would be closed for seven weeks!”

While challenging for everyone, from a marketing perspective, when everything stopped, “strategies, campaigns and marketing plans for the rest of the year dissipated right before our eyes”. Overnight, Whitbread’s team had to become more reactive and more flexible than ever – which is understandably tricky for a business as big as McDonald’s.

“Many product or campaigns due to launch during the time restaurants were closed got postponed or changed. Our 2020 promotional food calendar was suddenly a thing of the past. Instead, it seemed like we were changing our plans almost daily. With a limited menu and limited capacity in socially-distanced restaurants, this naturally had an impact on what we could execute – and in turn communicate – in media. All of which has given new meaning to being adaptable!”


Stand and deliver

For delivery apps, levels of growth that should have taken years have instead happened in months as adoption accelerated beyond anyone’s expectations.

At the start of 2020, Deliveroo had been warning that it was on the brink of collapse. But with a cash-injection from Amazon followed by skyrocketing sales off the back of lockdown and distancing rules, it is now bringing in Goldman Sachs to guide it towards floating on the London Stock Exchange, with the expectation it’ll be valued at £2bn. It has also brought more than 40,000 new restaurants on to its platform, as well as grocery partners such as Waitrose and Aldi, while its ‘Brought to you by Deliveroo’ widget allows customers to place orders on partner websites and not just through its app.

At McDonald’s, too, the pandemic has provided significant opportunity through growing demand for delivery as well as mobile ordering and payment. Meanwhile, at KFC, marketing manager Dhiren Karnani says delivery went from accounting for 20% of its sales mix to being half its business overnight. That’s down to it being an early-mover, however, and he says that since then, competition has intensified, requiring continued effort “to make the experience as seamless as possible”.

Farrar, who has recently been appointed as the digital brand manager at Pizza Hut’s vegan cheese supplier, Violife, says 2020 has helped restaurants make technological leaps that would usually have been pushed back due to budgets – “especially for things like mobile ordering and virtual queuing”.

“There were things on our roadmap at Pizza Hut that were brought forward to meet the current challenges. A mobile ordering system was always something we had planned, but the circumstances meant we had to get it ready in time for restaurants reopening.”

The most impressive thing he saw, however, was over at Honest Burger. The brand partnered with What3Words and by using its geocode system offered location-precise deliveries where no address exists (think burgers brought to you in the park as you picnic). “It’s great to see innovation like that come from such a hard time.”

Return of the Mac

Before lockdown, McDonald’s had the kind of quiet confidence needed to run an ad campaign that didn’t even mention its name, with billboards by Leo Burnett simply listing the ingredients of its most famous products. As it began to reopen for takeaway, delivery and drive-through, however, it showed a different kind of confidence when it swaggered on to our screens to the sound of 90s pop classic Return of the Mack.

Whitbread, who has since moved back to her native Australia where she is now McDonald’s senior brand manager, says that with so many unknowns in their lives, customers found it comforting to have some semblance of normality. “One of the key roles of McDonald’s throughout the pandemic was to remain a beacon of familiarity, so we aimed to provide everyone with just a little bit of comfort in the familiar.”

Communicating to customers has been incredibly important throughout, she says, and as the world started to change, so did its messaging. “From the beginning and into the depths of the pandemic, our messaging was functional and focused on detail such as change of ordering channels, safety procedures and guidelines. That was followed by store closures and keeping our customers informed on how we were keeping them safe.

“Staying close to customer sentiment in the ever-changing climate has been imperative to ensure our tone of voice has remained appropriate and reflective of how our customers, crew and teams are feeling. And then as restaurants reopened and favorite items returned to the menu, celebrating the return of the McDonald’s moments that had been missed was exciting. I’m so proud to have been a part of it!”

Farrar similarly says he had never been prouder to work at the pizza chain, and that while good comms with customers has always been important, “in 2020 that’s just been taken to another level”. He says it has been really interesting to see how different brands have approached the challenge differently and with different levels of success.

“For us, the comms were initially just service messaging – so which restaurants are open, what service they’re operating. But as restaurants remained closed, it was great to use those platforms to stay connected with followers, from updates about food donation programs and reopening plans to just sharing updates about how our teams are getting on and what we’re up to.

“You could look at all that from a really cynical point of view – like brands are expected to get so many messages out a week for CRM deliverability scores or whatever. But I think we saw quite a nice change of pace for a lot of restaurants.” Some enforced time to communicate genuinely without anything to sell was “a breath of fresh air”, he says.

Pizza Hut also used the opportunity for some CSR activity during what have been trying times for its customers, with Farrar telling how it donated “hundreds of thousands of meals to NHS staff, homeless shelters and local good causes”. “With so much uncertainty in the industry and having to deal with the personal mental health issues that the last few months brought about, being part of something genuinely kind really, really helped.”

Farrar is right – it is easy to be cynical when it comes to the fast food industry, and many would argue that such misgivings are merited. But as restaurant businesses busy themselves with reinvention, there’s no denying that it’s in fast food that this will happen fastest. And as consumers look for a slice of comfort in troubling times, it’ll likely be in a pizza box or burger wrapper they’ll find it. And cynic or not, it’s hard to deny the palpable pride of the marketers who’ve played a part.

Nominations for this year’s Future 50 are currently open. If you’d like to nominate yourself, or a colleague, for our list of the best rising stars and emerging marketers in the world, follow this link.

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