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How restaurants can attract Gen Z customers

These young customers are tuned into tech and seeking authenticity

Joseph Szala is a restaurant branding expert based in Atlanta. This article does not necessarily reflect the opinions of the editors or management of Nation’s Restaurant News.

Restaurants have traditionally been a means to an end. But due to mountains of options, they’ve surpassed the basic utility of satiating hunger, and have created new need and want states.

This phenomenon is especially prevalent among Generation Z. For them, brands have evolved into cultural and social statements. Translation: Restaurants are no longer here to simply satisfy hunger.

In today’s world, young diners and would-be brand ambassadors want brands that reflect and contribute to their shared values. Great products and superior customer service are table stakes.

Restaurants that help exert and receive influence among this generation’s peer group get their attention, and eventually their loyalty. The culmination of brand experiences has to be more than just purely transactional. They must connect with authentic participation as the catalyst.

A recent study conducted by iris Worldwide looked at shopping behaviors of Millennials and Gen Z. Overall, this group looks for brands that deliver a unified and genuine message that aligns with every experience, including the transaction of buying. They want seamlessness in all the ways they communicate. After all, these brands do the talking for the consumer.

There are brands that are ahead of the curve and understand this evolution, and others that must innovate or perish. Here are four things restaurants should consider in cultivating more meaningful relationships with Gen Z:

  1. Celebrate communities that share the same values. Focusing on core influencer groups within your market is a stellar way to gain traction and build buzz. Celebrate the things that get them excited inside and outside your four walls. Aligning with their passions will position you as a “friend” and spark more opportunities for word of mouth, social chatter and buy-in from those who have a much larger reach and loudspeaker.

Freebirds World Burrito does a stellar job of connecting the brand to a cause that resonates with the same values as their audience. The chain’s program leverages the power of locality with the help of “tribe members” — staff members who are engaged in the local communities. This effort is honest and effective at aligning the brand with the values in each community. 

  1. Present your brand and food within their culture. Too often, restaurants only consider the experience inside their four walls. Instead, they need to consider the potential for their brand to be a lifestyle, not just a hunger cure. This happens outside the four walls and within different subcultures. So ask not how the culture of Gen Z fits into your brand, but how your brand fits into their culture. They want real, authentic experiences that aren’t afraid to be human. That means fessing up to mistakes, listening to people and having a personality.

Many local, independent restaurant brands excel at community integration by having strong showings at local events large and small. It’s more genuine than throwing money at sponsorships and calling it a day. These brands get face to face with the people in their market and create connections with each other and the brand. 

  1. Help them experience your brand in their channels. The restaurant industry has been stuck in a rut with old-fashioned dining experiences. Gen Z is tech savvy and tech dependent, and, in the traditional sense, they don’t always want someone to take their order, provide suggestions and interrupt their conversations to ask them how their meal is. They’re well versed at handling the process — and complaining when something isn’t right.

Brands like Domino’s in the U.K. allow customers to build their own pizza with any toppings of their choosing. Then they name them and promote their creation through social media. This example hasn’t only proven engaging — it has driven sales.

Utilizing new features on popular social platforms can also work towards building your brand. For instance, Instagram’s new “shop now” capabilities can quickly convert a passive viewer into a potential customer. It just takes some extra thinking and an attention to creative opportunities.

Many restaurants saw the value in emerging platforms last summer, when Pokémon Go hit like a tidal wave. By setting up PokéStops and using the platform’s lure item creatively, they were able to draw in people quickly, effectively and inexpensively.

  1. Make dining super simple and super social. Many full-service brands have been hesitant to implement a kiosk or a digital-forward approach to ordering. The rationale usually includes the lack of personal touch and the ability to upsell. However, the industry continues to fail to reinvent the way we grow with ever-changing consumer needs and wants. Rethinking how customers order and engaged could be the disruptive game-changer, akin to Uber’s overhaul of personal transportation. It wasn’t that personal transportation wasn’t available before Uber; it’s that Uber made it simple and intuitive.

For instance, Taco Bell is constantly pushing its cultural relevance by simplifying and streamlining the way customers order tacos. From ordering using taco emojis on Twitter, to simple message-based ordering on popular communications platforms like Slack, Taco Bell obviously understands that simplicity is king.

Attracting Gen Z isn’t an enigma. These customers aren’t mythical beasts that require magic to be found. Above all, they require authenticity from brands across the board. By following the four points above, you can conform your brand to their will and wants effectively. After all, their buying power is only growing. Those who choose to stay ahead of the curve will win. 

Joseph Szala is a restaurant branding expert based in Atlanta. His acute understanding of how restaurants operate, where they fail and how to build them into successful brands has launched him to expert status. Szala is currently senior creative for iris Worldwide - Atlanta and principal of Vigor, a restaurant branding studio.

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