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It’s not enough to simply tell customers what you’re doing to keep them safe and healthy: You have to show them as well.

Restaurants Rise: How marketing is changing in a post-COVID-19 world

Chris Hollander, CMO of Panera Bread, and Gje Greene-Wallace, director of marketing for Fish City Grill, discussed how marketing messages have evolved in the age of coronavirus

As consumer confidence and priorities change, so should restaurant strategies. What might have worked as an on-brand marketing message before the pandemic hit could be tone-deaf or miss the mark in what has become a changed industry.

On day four of Nation’s Restaurant News and Restaurant Hospitality’s Restaurants Rise digital summit, Chris Hollander, chief marketing officer of Panera Bread, and Gje Greene-Wallace, director of marketing for 20-unit, Texas-based seafood chain Fish City Grill and sister concept Half Shells, spoke about how their marketing and communications strategies shifted over the past couple of months to prioritize building human connections as well as safety policies.

Here’s what we learned from the "Marketing Matters: How to reach guests the right way in a changed world" session on June 5, sponsored by SevenRooms and moderated by Nation’s Restaurant News executive editor Lisa Jennings.

Learn to be flexible

Two weeks before the pandemic began in earnest across the United States, Panera Bread launched what was supposed to be a revolutionary coffee subscription program. But they had to pivot quickly when it became clear that to-go coffee was the last thing on consumers’ minds.

“We had an ad ready to go featuring hordes of people descending on a Panera Cafe and we paused that and instead focused more on reminding people how they can still enjoy Panera with new experiences,” Hollander said.

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Stand out from a sea of sameness

It’s very easy to get caught up in trying the same strategies that everyone else is doing both during the pandemic and as everything is beginning to calm down, but the best marketing strategy is about standing out while also appealing to what the consumer wants.

Chris-Hollander-CMO-Panera-Bread.gif“I don’t know about the rest of you, but the ads feel like a sea of sameness, they all start with that lilting music,” Hollander, left, said. “Now you have to pivot and figure out what’s next to break though that clutter.”

But the focus on safety will remain a piece of the brand's messaging going forward, Hollander said.

Visibility of safety and sanitation policies is vital

It’s not enough to simply tell customers what you’re doing to keep them safe and healthy: You have to show them as well.

“Up until now, no one wanted to know what was happening behind the curtain,” Greene-Wallace said. “Our team members were good about washing our hands, but now we put in a dining room timer that goes off every 20 minutes and everyone stops what they’re doing to wash their hands. Customers can see what’s happening live.”

Greene-Wallace also said that they have hired a team member dedicated entirely to cleaning and sanitation, and as a result, customers will always see someone wiping down counters and sanitizing other surfaces.

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Value personal connection

One of the most important aspects of their new marketing strategy, Greene-Wallace realized, was how much her customers missed personal interactions. So they decided to make their team members a large part of their messaging.

Gje-Wallace-marketing-director-Fish-City-Grill.gif“People were starving for connection and missing their family and friends, so we took a new step and stopped trying to sell the same experience as always,” Greene-Wallace, left, said. “We featured team members in our social media posts and marketing materials so they can see faces of the people they remember seeing holding signs like ‘we miss you’ and ‘stay strong.’” 

Listen to what the customer wants

An important part of being flexible in the age of coronavirus is listening to what the customer wants because it may be different than you expect. Although Panera Bread began offering groceries as part of their emergency plan during the peak of the pandemic, that availability might continue as long as customer demand remains high.

At Fish City Grill, the plan is to continue offering the popular family meal packs even as dining rooms reopen, although certain features of their coronavirus-era business plan, like in-house delivery, will be phased out if they are not worth the cost.

“The playbook is totally different today,” Greene-Wallace said. “People are responding well today to what might have been over-messaging a few years ago.”

Contact Joanna Fantozzi at [email protected]com

Follow her on Twitter: @JoannaFantozzi

This is part of special coverage of the Restaurants Rise digital summit taking place online June 2-5, powered by Nation’s Restaurant News and Restaurant Hospitality. Register for live sessions or on-demand replays at RestaurantsRise.com.

Title sponsors for Restaurants Rise include DoorDash, National Pork Board and True Aussie Beef & Lamb. A portion of proceeds from this event will help support the Restaurant Employee Relief Fund from the National Restaurant Association Educational Foundation.

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